Honorable Deputy Prime Minister of Eswatini,
Ambassador of the European Union to Eswatini,
Manzini Regional Administrator
Director of Women and Law in Southern Africa – Eswatini,
Members of the Women’s Regiment Lutsango LwakaNgwane Executive,
Representatives of Non-Governmental Organizations and Civil Society,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
All protocols observed.
I am honored to join you again this year for the One Billion Rising campaign to encourage every citizen to raise their voice and stand against gender-based violence. I applaud the work of WLSA and the many other organizations working in Eswatini to break barriers for women, enabling them to realize their full potential and overcome the fundamental imbalance between what is allowed for men and what is expected of women. Last year, at this event, we took a moment to savor the victory of the passage of the SODV Act, which was an amazing example of the civic action that is possible in this country. Not only was this groundbreaking piece of legislation put into effect, but it began to work. Now, survivors of gender-based violence in Eswatini are finding justice.
We all know the research that shows women who experience gender-based violence earn 60 percent less than women who do not. We all know that violence against women and girls has a negative impact on their participation in education, employment, and civic life, which in turn means they are less able to contribute to the economic growth of the community. If women miss out on these opportunities, their children are more likely to be disadvantaged, which limits their future prospects and passes the disadvantage down from generation to generation.
The imbalance of power that feeds gender-based violence also exposes women and young girls to risks such as blessers and unplanned pregnancies, including teen pregnancies. Nearly 20% of all pregnancies in Eswatini last year were amongst girls ages 10 to 19, and rural areas see the highest rates, with some going as high as 40%. These numbers are alarming. Teenage pregnancy is a major contributor to school non-completion. Last year more than 40% of unplanned school departures were due to pregnancy. Teenage pregnancy ends educational opportunities for far too many young Swati women, eroding developmental outcomes for themselves and their children, and having reverberating effects throughout whole communities.
Even more concerning, 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. Between the ages of 15 and 19, new HIV infection rates for young women nearly double those of their male peers. In their early 20s, a young woman is five times more likely to be HIV positive than a man her same age. It is only after age 25 that men’s infection rates start to catch up with women’s. The data is clear: sexually active adolescent girls and young women are, by and large, having sex with men older than they are. Think about that power dynamic and whether a young woman is really in a position to say no.
It is easy to be distracted by sensational stories of much older men who have sex with teenage girls, but what about a young man in his 20s who makes a 16-year-old pregnant? The result is the same, and this is quite possibly the more common scenario. Young men and older men alike should know they will be held to account for their actions, socially and legally. Men need to be responsible for knowing a girl’s age, and for understanding that, even though a body may look like a woman’s, the person inside may not be at an age where they can understand the full implications of a sexual relationship, and they are certainly not old enough to really provide consent.
How can we address the problem of teen pregnancy? One way is to give young people more skills and tools to aspire to achieve their full potential, and to understand ways an unintended pregnancy could limit their aspirations. The U.S. Government’s PEPFAR program has an activity called DREAMS, which works to make adolescent girls and young women Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe. Many of our Peace Corps volunteers are working with young people in their communities through GLOW and BRO clubs to help young people identify their goals, learn some of the skills to help them reach those goals, and understand the pitfalls that could hold them back.
We must also create a culture of equal accountability, and we must equip young people with the knowledge and information they need to make informed choices. Our instincts say that if we talk about sex, young people will be more tempted to explore their sexuality. The problem is, if we don’t talk about it and leave young people to navigate this complex and highly consequential space on their own, they will make decisions based on the information they can get elsewhere. In a vacuum of information, young people make up their own stories. If adults do not provide them with open and truthful information, we risk letting them make life-changing decisions on the basis of wrong information. We must also give them the tools to understand the concept of consent, including that a young person is not able to give consent until he or she reaches the age of 18. As adults, we have a responsibility to give young people the right information about sex, and we must get comfortable with discussing it openly.
Finally, we must shift away from a culture of blame and shame and toward one of empowerment and prevention. While prevention must be the top priority, adults should be prepared to offer encouragement and support, rather than shame and disappointment when a girl becomes pregnant. Young people should not be pressured or forced to leave school when a young woman becomes pregnant. We need to take the responsibility to protect and guide all young people to a place of understanding and compassion. In particular, a young mother needs to be embraced and supported so she has the courage to grow through the experience and to give the best that she has to her child. This support can go a long way in helping her heal, grow, and reach her full potential.
To everyone who works in this space, thank you. Your tireless advocacy, leadership, and resilience are a testament to what is possible when we lift our voices together. As we all continue to work toward women’s equality and against teen pregnancy, the U.S. Embassy stands ready to listen, discuss, and explore new approaches to combat gender-based violence and its foundations across all levels of society. Siyabonga.