Ambassador Peterson’s Remarks for Women’s History Month Event

Honorable Members of Parliament,

Honorable High Court Judge, Mumcy Dlamini

Representative from the DPM’s Office, Kangeziwe Mabuza,

Government Officials,

Civil Society Leaders,


Good evening and welcome to my home.  I want to thank you for taking time from your busy schedules to join us in commemorating Women’s History Month.  While this month is about celebrating women’s achievements, it is also a time to focus world attention on the challenges facing women which require further action.  And there are still many challenges, as this film so artfully depicts.  I’d like to review some statistics with you.  Globally, 66 million girls are out of school, yet a child born to a literate mother is 50% more likely to survive past age five.  There are 33 million fewer girls than boys in primary school, but for each extra year of education she receives, a girl will earn 20% more as an adult than she would have without that additional schooling.  Girls comprise 80% of all human trafficking victims worldwide.  In sub-Saharan Africa, 75% of AIDS cases are female. 14 million girls under the age of 18 will be married this year; that’s 38,000 girls just today and 13 girls in the last 30 seconds.  The number one cause of death for girls aged 15-19 worldwide is childbirth.  35% of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence. Fifty percent of girls who are sexually assaulted are under the age of 15.

In Swaziland the reality for girls is no different; 33% report that they have experienced sexual violence, and 25% report physical abuse.  These are just the reported cases; the actual numbers of girls who are violated or abused are certainly much higher, hidden behind the fear of stigma, shame, and retribution.  According to a recent report by CANGO, the Coordinating Assembly of Non-Governmental Organizations, at least 78 percent of women in Swaziland are survivors of gender-based violence. That’s nearly8 out of 10 Swazi women who will experience gender-based violence at some point in her lifetime.

The reasons for the prioritization of gender issues, both in Swaziland and around the world, are clear.  Inequality and discrimination have a negative impact on everyone, not just the girls who are denied equal opportunities and treatment.  Data has repeatedly shown that when girls are educated, countries are more prosperous.  Girls who are in school are more likely to delay marriage and childbirth, have lower rates of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and enjoy greater equality at home and in society.  Their future children are more likely to survive and be educated themselves.  And when women earn more money, they are more likely to invest in their children and households, enhancing family, and ultimately community, health and well-being.

Some of the world’s most respected economists and private sector companies have found that the most competitive and prosperous countries are those where the gender gap is closest to being narrowed across the spectrum of society, including education, health, and economic and political participation.  Evidence shows that countries only progress economically, socially, and politically when girls participate fully in all aspects of society and when they are protected from discrimination and gender-based violence, including early and forced marriage.  No country can achieve prosperity, peace, or security if half of its population is left vulnerable to social and economic discrimination, abuse, and violence.

The long road to protecting Swazi children, especially girls, requires implementation of existing laws and enacting others.  Two years after its enactment, the Children’s Protection and Welfare Act still awaits regulations that will guide Swazi government agencies in its implementation.

Progress also requires that the most glaring gap in the legal framework on protection from violence is filled: The Domestic Violence and Sexual Offences Bill has lingered far too long in political limbo.  Every day of delay in passing this legislation means that a girl who feels threatened by an abusive relative or neighbor cannot get the help or the protection that the law should provide.  Each delay means that a girl who has been abused is denied protection from secondary trauma and access to support services provided for under the law.  Swaziland’s girls cannot wait for protection and justice – they need a legislative framework in place now.  It will influence the way people think about women’s equal enjoyment of human rights and it will finally give legal recourse to those whose rights are violated.

I invited you all here to join me in celebrating Women’s History Month, but I admit that I had another agenda as well.  Being new to Swaziland, I wanted a chance to meet all of you; I know you are doing great work in your respective fields.  But I also wanted to hear from some of the major stakeholders in the passage of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Offences Bill about where the Bill is currently and what might be done collectively to help move the legislation forward so that girls and women in Swaziland can have a solid, legal foundation on which to stand if they become victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse.  I think the film we’ve seen tonight makes a very eloquent and convincing case for investing in and educating girls.  It also illustrates many of the very real challenges facing young women around the world. In Yasmin’s story in particular, we see a clear example of why every country – Swaziland included – needs legislation protecting women and girls.  In her case, the system that should have protected her initially treated her with suspicion and contempt, then sought to dismiss the case with money rather than justice.  The law should have been on her side, without her mother having to appeal for justice.  And the law should be on the side of Swazi women and girls who face similar situations.

I want to make one other point about the second story we saw.  For Asmera, it was a young man in her family – her brother – who defended her right to say no to a forced marriage and to stay in school.  This is a perfect illustration of the fact that gender-based violence and women’s rights more broadly, are not “women’s issues.”  They are everyone’s issues. They are human rights issues.  Men must be just as active as women in promoting equality and combatting gender-based violence. We can all work within our own spheres of influence to advance the rights of women and girls.  We will certainly all benefit if we do.

With that, I’d like to open the floor for discussion.  I would especially like to hear about the current status of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Offences Bill as well as ideas for how it could be moved forward in the legislative process.