Manzini Regional Administrator;
Cebile Dlamini, Secretary General of Swaziland Rural Women’s Assembly;
Representatives of Non-Governmental Organizations and Civil Society,
I am honored to be part of this event to celebrate and raise the voices of rural women in Eswatini. I applaud the work of Swaziland Rural Women’s Assembly to break barriers for women, enabling them to realize their full potential and overcome a fundamental imbalance between what is allowed for men and what is expected of women. Swaziland Rural Women’s Assembly advocates for and provides training on women’s rights, political representation, and livelihoods projects that lead to long term self-reliance. Their network of mentors and peer educators serves a vital function by drawing on the strength of community organizations to train women on issues around land ownership and distribution and to help rural communities raise the challenges they experience to decision-makers at the national level.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said that, “The empowerment of rural women and girls is essential to building a prosperous, equitable and peaceful future for all on a healthy planet.” You all see every day the critical role women and girls play in sustaining their families and their communities. Much of this sustenance comes from the small plots that women and girls tend. These women work just as hard as their male counterparts, but limits on property ownership and discrimination in access to credit, agricultural inputs, and markets place women at an immediate and ongoing disadvantage. These disadvantages do not affect just a woman and her family. They can hold whole communities back. When a woman is responsible for feeding, sheltering, clothing, and educating her family, what do you think happens to these fundamental needs if her land is taken from her, or she cannot afford seeds, or she gets a lower price for the mealies she is selling than the man right next to her? Allowing a woman to be disadvantaged means you automatically place her children at a disadvantage, limiting their future prospects and setting them up to pass on this disadvantage to their own children. If individual families are struggling with disadvantage from generation to generation, then their communities also cannot achieve their full potential.
If a woman does not have equal access to resources, she also runs the risk of losing her daughters to blessers. Where there are blessers, there are unplanned pregnancies. In a meeting I had with them a few years ago, Swaziland Rural Women’s Assembly identified teenage pregnancy as an area of top concern to them. Teen pregnancies can end educational opportunities for young women, result in poor developmental outcomes for children and, again, hold a whole community back from achieving its full potential. One legislator suggested that pregnant teens should be jailed, as if they were somehow responsible for conceiving all by themselves. We all, including that legislator, know that is not how pregnancy works. And if you look at Eswatini’s HIV infection rates, you will see that young women do not appear to be having sex with men of their own age group. Until age 14, HIV infection rates among boys and girls are similar. Between the ages of 15 and 19, new infection rates for young women start to nearly double those of their male peers. Between the ages of 20 and 24, women’s new infection rates increase even more dramatically, with a young woman five times as likely as her male counterpart to be HIV positive. It is only after age 25 that men’s infection rates start to catch up with women’s. The data is clear: adolescent girls and young women who have started having sex are, by and large, having sex with men who are older than them. Think about that power dynamic. Think about how society has entrenched that imbalance of power. Then think about how to achieve balance and change the approach to teen pregnancy away from blame and shame and toward empowerment and prevention.
Article 20 of the Eswatini Constitution provides for equality before the law and non-discrimination. But a constitution is only a piece of paper if people do not stand up and insist that its provisions are honored. Not long ago, the High Court boldly struck down discriminatory provisions in the Marriage Act related to women’s rights within a marriage – rights both to have a say in decisions around marital property and to be treated as equal adults within the bonds of marriage. Government initially said it would appeal this ruling, but now says it believes the pending Marriage Bill will address most issues of concern, including that of marital power. This may sound promising and reasonable, but I’d like to use an example from my country’s history as a cautionary tale.
In the mid-1800s, the U.S. constitution was amended to end slavery and to grant the right to vote to African Americans, who had previously been held as slaves. Legislators who did not agree with these constitutional changes quickly found other ways to keep African Americans from voting with tools such as unaffordable poll taxes or impossible literacy tests. It would take another 100 years, another constitutional amendment, multiple court rulings, and a voting rights act to finally ban these barriers to citizen participation.
Will the government try to use the Marriage Bill to undo the progress of the High Court’s ruling? I don’t know and you don’t know. But I do know that if you do not read the bill and understand what it may do, you could end up with something that does not help you, and something that could take you another 100 years to undo. So read, ask questions, discuss, engage your elected officials and, when necessary, go back to the galleries in parliament to remind the politicians that you care about the outcome of this bill, and they should care as well.
It is tempting to think that all our attention should be on such sweeping national issues, but I will invoke the saying of a famous American politician: “All politics is local.” This is why the grassroots work of organizations like Swaziland Rural Women’s Assembly on civic education and advocacy is so important. One example of the importance of such local advocacy was a campaign on crime prevention and equal access to land conducted in the Sandleni Community, Shiselweni region. Swaziland Rural Women’s Assembly found that many buildings were no longer being used by their owners, but were being occupied at night for possibly criminal activities. As a result, Swaziland Rural Women’s Assembly and members of the Sandleni community met with the constituency council and the Umgijimi to report on their findings and advocate for the unoccupied homesteads and buildings in the community to be utilized so as to decrease the use of the buildings for criminal activities. They were given permission by the constituency council and Umgijimi to further investigate the number of unoccupied houses in the Sandleni community and the effects they have on the crime rate and livelihoods in the area. Armed with the information from these investigations, the community will be able to respond more effectively to the precise problems they uncover.
Today, by hosting this event and creating continued dialogue, you are sending an important message not only to your families and fellow citizens but also to your government officials. Women’s rights are human rights. Emalungelo abomake ngemalungelo ebantfu bonkhe.