The film we are about to watch artfully depicts the many challenges still facing girls and women. I’ve spoken at a number of events this year on the need to ensure equal opportunity and safety from gender based violence for girls and women. I have some statistics that I’ve used at each of these events, and they are depressing statistics, but I think it’s important to keep these figures at the front of our minds to remind us why we need to engage and advocate every single day around the kinds of issues you are going to see in tonight’s film.
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; 48% of girls and young women between the ages of 13 and 24 reported having experienced some form of sexual violence, including rape, threat of rape, unwanted touching, or groping. Among girls in secondary school (ages 13 – 17), only 37 % reported that their first sexual experience was voluntary. 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 report this year 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 nearly 8 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 implementing 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 Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence 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.
The film we are about to see 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. There are a couple of stories I’d like to highlight. The story of Yasmin gives a clear example of why every country – Swaziland included – needs legislation protecting women and girls. In her case, the system that should protect her initially treats her with suspicion and contempt, then seeks to dismiss her case with money rather than justice. The law should be on her side, but her mother has to appeal for justice. The law should be on the side of Swazi women and girls who face similar situations.
In the story of Asmera, it is a young man in her family – her brother – who will defend 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.
As you watch these two stories, I would encourage you to think about a story that has been in the Swazi press over the past couple weeks. Kombi drivers and conductors in Manzini are sexually abusing primary school pupils. The perpetrators of this abuse want to pretend it is romance. But these are primary school pupils, many of whom would be under the age of 16, which is the age of sexual consent for girls in Swaziland. So what is really happening at the bus rank in Manzini needs to be called its proper, ugly name – rape. I applaud the courageous teacher who took this story to the media because she was not getting a response from the police. And I applaud the Swazi Observer for some quite thorough stories on this phenomenon. But this story makes my blood boil, in part because of the callous way in which the drivers and conductors speak as if they are free to seek out young girls because older women rebuff their advances. And my blood pressure goes up another notch when school officials suggest that this is bad behavior on the part of the students, blaming the victims for the crimes committed against them. Then up another notch when the police say it is difficult to act on such cases, and propose school programs to raise awareness among children rather than jail time for the men who have violated both these children and Swazi law. How much worse does this have to get before more teachers decide to take action, before the police find ways to hold these violators to account, before citizens stand up to the sexual predations of the drivers and conductors?
Silence and politeness are not Swaziland’s friends when it comes to cases like this. Keeping quiet allows these abuses to continue, making another whole generation of Swazi women vulnerable to HIV and post-tramautic stress disorder. How can Swaziland expect to achieve its developmental goals when half the population is treated in such an atrocious manner?
Now that I’ve taken us all down a thoroughly depressing path, I feel the need to talk about some of the bright spots that can inspire us to keep working to give girls every opportunity. Some of you may have seen newspaper stories earlier this year about a young Swazi woman who was a student at a local university. She was married to an abusive husband and suffered a horrific incident in which her husband tried to kill her and himself. She survived but was badly maimed. Here’s where we get to the happier part: This young woman returned to school and has just completed an internship with one of our Young African Leaders Initiative fellows. Our embassy got to see her in action during a program working to bring music education to young people in some of Swaziland’s most disadvantaged communities. Her resilience can serve as an example to all of us.
You may also be aware of the film Tibi Tendlu, which shares personal stories of gender based violence. The women in this film had the courage to come forward to tell their stories, an action that is now opening the way for more open discussion on a traditionally hidden topic.
Just as Asmera’s brother helps her stand up against early marriage, the Swazi organization Kwakha Indvodza is focused on mentoring boys and men to make them allies in the fight for equality and against abuse. Through their efforts and Peace Corps’ Boys Reaching Out (or BRO clubs), we can help build the generation that really will help Swaziland achieve its full potential.
Finally, I had the pleasure of watching a robotics competition in Matsapha last week. This competition, which this year brought in nearly 30 schools from around the country, helps students build coding, engineering, presentation, and research skills. The event was heavily populated with young men, but there was one team made up entirely of young women. That team, I am pleased to say, won the competition and will now represent Swaziland at the next level of competition in South Africa. These young women are examples of what girls can accomplish when given the right tools, guidance, and a safe environment. We all need to work every day to make sure that more girls get these opportunities.