I am excited and honored to be here today and to join you for this training on the Sexual Offenses and Domestic Violence, or SODV, Act of 2018. We at the U.S. Embassy have learned through our work on HIV and AIDS the tremendous role that chiefs can play in raising awareness in their communities. I hope that training sessions like this one bring the same kind of success to the fight against gender-based violence.
Chiefs and traditional leaders are crucial to the success of this law. You are guardians of your communities, and your presence here demonstrates that you are also leaders of vision and integrity. In your role as protectors, it is vitally important that you educate yourself on the impact gender-based violence has on your communities’ development and well-being, and that you share this information with your people. You are charged with the important task of helping your communities grow, thrive, and meet their full potential. This cannot happen if half of your people live in fear of, or must recover from, violence. I applaud your commitment to learning more about gender-based violence, the SODV Act, and how you, as leaders, can take steps to protect your mothers, sisters, daughters and wives from the negative impacts of gender-based violence and sexual abuse.
The SODV Act enshrines protections in a law that is designed to curb sexual offenses and domestic violence, and to hold perpetrators to account. It allows you to better carry out your duties as protector for your communities. It is a landmark piece of legislation, which benefits men, women, children, and whole communities, by enhancing the human rights of all Emaswati. It honors your country’s rich culture of buntfu by elevating the dignity of everyone within your families and communities—not only your daughters, sisters, and mothers, but also your sons, brothers, and fathers.
You all see every day the critical role women and girls play in sustaining their families and their communities. When a woman is responsible for feeding, sheltering, clothing, and educating her family, what do you think happens to these fundamental needs if she is injured or has to seek legal support? Research has shown that women who experience gender-based violence earn 60 percent less than women who do not experience such violence. Violence against women and girls can have 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, limiting their future prospects and setting them up to pass on this disadvantage to their own children. Children who witness violence in the home are at greater risk of experiencing or committing gender-based violence themselves. If individual families are struggling with disadvantage and violence from generation to generation, then their communities also cannot achieve their full potential.
The imbalance of power that feeds gender-based violence also exposes women to risks such as blessers and unplanned pregnancies, including teen pregnancies. These can end educational opportunities for young women, eroding developmental outcomes for their children and, again, holding back a whole community from achieving its full potential. 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. In a society that demands that youth respect their elders and that women defer to men, how much control do you think these young women really have over what happens to their bodies and, ultimately, their futures? This imbalance of power affects not only these young women, but the physical, mental, and economic health of your entire community. As leaders, you are incredibly well placed to guide change in your communities so that people think in new and different ways about gender-based violence, first by changing the approach to people who have experienced violence from one that blames the victim or trivializes their suffering to one that ensures their rights and their bodies are protected. By participating in this training, you are giving yourselves the tools to truly support and defend your communities.
I encourage you to learn all you can about the SODV Act during the next two days. I encourage you to talk to each other and to other leaders about what you have learned, so you can build a network of protectors that extends throughout the country. I urge you all to work toward a future where all Emaswati—men, women and children—are safe in their umphakatsi, on the street, and in their homes. One of Eswatini’s greatest assets is the collective strength of the communities such as the ones you represent here in Shiselweni. You are the leaders—the protectors—of these communities.
Here in this forum, you will have the opportunity to ask your questions, address your concerns, and develop a better understanding of what the SODV Act really says, and what it really means. Today happens to be Domestic Violence Awareness Day in the United States, a day when many people across the U.S. honor and remember those who have lost their lives to domestic violence and reflect on ways they can help bring hope to survivors. Awareness is first about understanding the nature of the problem you are confronting, but it is also about knowing the actions you can take to address the issue. In learning about this law, you are standing in solidarity with people who have experienced domestic violence and you are equipping yourselves to prevent future cases, which will only make your communities stronger. On the foundation of this strength, you will be helping to build a brighter tomorrow for all Emaswati.