Remarks by Ambassador Lisa Peterson: Closing of TUCOSWA Women’s Conference – Manzini

Siyanivusela Bekunene.

I am honored to join you today for the closing of TUCOSWA’s Women Structure Campaign launch, and to recognize your critical contributions as women workers and women leaders.  This conference is an excellent opportunity to celebrate the impact that women have on Eswatini’s productivity, political advancement, and economic growth.

Every country needs women, like you, who pursue and embrace leadership roles in their organizations.  Through your efforts, you are contributing to the growth of your country, serving as role models for young Swati women, and promoting the empowerment of women as a critical tool for improving Eswatini’s political and economic development.

This workshop was held during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, and one of this year’s themes is “End Gender-Based Violence in the World of Work.” Though many cases of gender-based violence occur in the home, many women also experience physical and verbal harassment at work, or in the public transport system on the way to and from work. Domestic and child care workers, who are often women, can be particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Much work remains to address the foundations of gender-based violence, including attitudes and beliefs about women that make it culturally acceptable to demean them, or treat them as less valuable than men or as sexual objects.  Even as we deal with every day occurrences of violence, and the underlying inequality and disadvantages women face, we must recognize the important progress of the passage of the SODV Act after nearly a dozen years of effort. The story of the passage of the SODV Act provides invaluable lessons and examples that can guide future efforts.

In October last year, civil society groups showed incredible organizational effectiveness by flooding the gallery of the House of Assembly in the final days of debate on the Sexual Offenses and Domestic Violence Bill, successfully persuading Members of Parliament to withdraw objections and pass the Bill.  From there, these groups set to work convincing members of the Senate.  They mounted a concerted campaign using personal contact, advocacy through the media, and public marches when appropriate, to build support for the Bill and respond to people’s concerns.

One of the groups worked with rural communities, educating women and collaborating with Lutsango LwaboMake and other community leaders on the Bill.  Another ensured that dialogue about the Bill was sustained and ongoing, informing a wide cross-section of the Kingdom of efforts to pass the Bill. A third group focused on male mentoring, engaging men to educate and mobilize other men about the Bill’s contents and how to hold officials accountable.

Collectively, these groups and others compelled Parliament to take action to protect emaSwati from gender-based violence. In July this year, after Parliament completed its action, King Mswati III provided royal assent to the SODV Act.

The action around the SODV Act shows that progress is possible when policy makers, legislators, service providers, and civil society work together in a comprehensive way.  The enactment of the SODV marked the end of more than a decade of activism to overcome opposition from government and traditional structures around the legislation.  The passage of the Bill was a victory not only for victims of gender-based violence, but also for civil society’s ability to effectively advocate for change.

A few short months after its passage, we are already reading several reports in the news each week of people being reported, charged, and convicted under the new law. There is a great deal of work to do to sensitize women, men, police, magistrates and communities around the country to their rights and responsibilities under the Act. I am deeply encouraged to see a number of organizations, including the Government of Eswatini, the U.S. Embassy, UNICEF, TUCOSWA, WLSA and other civil society organizations taking on that task.

This experience must serve as a model for other legislation that needs to be passed, including the Marriages Bill, the Matrimonial Property Bill and amendments to the Intestate Succession Act.

As you move forward to advance some of these policies and legislative changes, I would like to offer some suggestions and lessons learned:

First, I am sure you noted during your discussions yesterday that there are many national, regional, and international laws and conventions that have been passed or ratified that still need to be “domesticated” or reflected in Eswatini’s laws.  Focus on a few discreet opportunities within this list as a starting point – for example, implementation of the SODV; passing the Marriages or Matrimonial Property bills; or finding ways that you can create opportunities for women’s leadership at local levels to build a larger and stronger pool of women candidates for the next elections.  The Southern African Litigation Center (SALC), with funding from the European Union and support from multiple NGOs in Eswatini, has authored a report with a number of recommendations that can be used as a roadmap for your work.

Second, be realistic and be creative. Eswatini is facing a dire fiscal crisis, and now is not the ideal time to make proposals that will require significant financial resources.  I often tell my staff that we have to find budget neutral ways to advance our strategic goals.  On the other hand, now is the time to forge links with a new Cabinet that seems energized, ready to root out corruption, and focused on serving the people of Eswatini.

You have a new Parliament with members who are eager to make their mark, including proposing legislation themselves rather than waiting for it to come from the Cabinet. Work with them. Advance your policy priorities with them.  Hold them accountable. And make sure you find ways to do this in collaboration with other parts of civil society. Learn from the successes and challenges of your colleagues at WLSA, SWAAGA and Kwakha Indvodza in their work on the SODV Act.

Third, work with men. Someday, there will be more women in parliament, maybe the 30% stated in the Constitution, maybe 50%, or perhaps even more. But that is not today’s reality, and it is not enough to rely on the handful of women in parliament to do all the heavy lifting. Men in parliament and civil society organizations were instrumental in supporting the passage of the SODV Act. Seek out these men who are champions of women’s rights, and work with them to mobilize other men. People like to blame women for the poor electoral showing, but the reasons for the low numbers of women in public office go far beyond a stereotype of women not supporting each other.

Selecting the right people for public office needs to be about everyone voting for who they consider to be the best candidate, whether they are a man or a woman.  But getting more women into those spaces where they can compete means that a whole range of structural changes have to happen so that women are recognized and treated as equals.  These structural changes need to be advanced by men as well as women.

Finally, lead by example. Create more opportunities for women to fill leadership positions at local, regional, and national levels within TUCOSWA. Continue to support women with workshops such as this. Make sure the men of TUCOSWA are supporting and working with the women of TUCOSWA.

I urge you to continue advocating for policies that will create a future where all of Eswatini’s women are safe in their workplace, on the street, and in their homes. All of you in this room are leaders.  In you, I see tremendous strength.  On the foundation of this strength, I have no doubt that you can build an even brighter tomorrow.

Thank you for inviting me to join you today as you embark on this important mission to press for the understanding that women’s rights are human rights.  The time for change is now. We at the U.S. Embassy value your efforts and wish you all success as you move forward. Siyabonga.