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POLITICS-SWAZILAND: A Woman With Swagger

Mantoe Phakathi

MBABANE, Oct 22 2008 (IPS) - The writing is on the wall. "WANTED – Men who Believe that Wives are not for Beating," reads a poster on Nonhlanhla Dlamini's office wall.

Dlamini -- Advocating laws to protect women and children. Credit:  Mantoe Phakathi/IPS

Dlamini -- Advocating laws to protect women and children. Credit: Mantoe Phakathi/IPS

"Oh yes! I'm a women's rights activist and I'm not apologetic about that," she says.

People who know the new Member of Parliament from Ludzeludze in Swaziland's commercial capital, Manzini, think she is sure to make a difference in Swaziland's conservative political system.

"She is very courageous and she is able to communicate her views clearly. You can easily buy into them, even if she might be wrong," says Hlobisile Dlamini-Shongwe, the public relations officer of Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA).

A nurse by profession, Dlamini has spent all her working life advocating for women and children's rights. She holds two degrees in nursing – one in midwifery from the University of Swaziland and another one in forensic nursing from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Forensic nursing involves collecting evidence from the scene of an incident and preserving it for use in court – a skill that is glaringly lacking in the nursing fraternity in the country.

"We need to incorporate this skill in the nursing profession because a lot of rape cases have been lost because of poor collection of evidence," she says.


Dlamini's career as a women's rights activist dates back to 1995 when she joined the Family Life Association of Swaziland (FLAS) as an information officer. The decision to join SWAGAA came at a time when someone close to her was raped and she felt the rape survivor needed better support. Despite little previous experience in dealing with issues of violence against women, she got the position of programme officer-education after convincing the panellists that she was going to learn fast.

She did not disappoint: excelling in the position, she was promoted to become director of SWAGAA five years later. As director, Dlamini worked to incorporate men in the fight against gender-based violence and established a programme where young girls are trained and mentored to be less vulnerable to gender-based abuse.

She leaves behind 55 thriving women self-help groups in different communities where poor women form associations to save as little as 50 cents a week as an economic empowerment initiative.

"The savings have accumulated to $11,111 and I'm very happy about that," she says.

"I've raised the profile for this organisation and I'm really proud of the achievements we've realised during my time. I leave SWAGAA at a time when the organisation has never been so strong," she says.

Dlamini-Shongwe and her colleagues are not very happy to see their leader leave, but find consolation in the fact that Dlamini will continue to represent women and influence change in parliament.

"She has an overwhelming amount of energy, sometimes she scares me," says Dlamini-Shongwe.

But Dlamini herself discloses that the Sep. 19 elections – particularly campaigning in the different chiefdoms – drained a lot of her energy. She felt exhausted during the secondary elections – which is the final stage of the elections process. She says the elections were also challenging emotionally because she had to deal with negative stereotypes of her as a woman.

"Some of my competitors went to an extent of claiming that I'm an unmarried woman who doesn't deserve a seat in Parliament because of her role as women’s rights activist," says Dlamini. But her faith in God, which she cites as her greatest strength, kept her going. She emerged as the winner in her constituency, beating seven men.

Integrity

The election race was a daunting one, because some of her competitors were offering bribes to the electorate in an attempt to buy votes. When people were asked Dlamini for 'gifts', she stood firm, explaining that as an aspiring lawmaker she would not break the law.

"Instead, I did a quick a survey on what the electorate's expectations are from a member of parliament. And then I made a flyer, where I outlined the amount of work I've done in Parliament through lobbying and what my qualities are," she says.

And that seemed to have worked.

"I was very happy when I was announced the winner," Dlamini says. She attributes her success partly to the "Vote for a Woman Campaign" launched by the women's movement to create awareness of the importance of getting more women to Parliament. Dlamini is one of seven women voted into Parliament this year. In the 2003 elections on five women were voted into parliament.

But she will not forget the tension and anxiety that characterised the vote-counting period, before the results were announced. Had it not been for her husband and in-laws who were with her until the very end, she does not want to think how things would have turned out.

"The results were announced after 3:00 am and that is when my mother-in-law went to bed," she says, adding: "I'm very lucky to be married into such a wonderful family, they don't stand in my way in whatever I want to achieve. Instead they give me support."

The mother of two girls aged 11 and four, Dlamini lights up when she speaks about her family, particularly her husband to whom she has been married for 14 years, describing him as loving and caring. She also has two stepsons. Although both Dlamini and her husband, who refuses to stand in the limelight with his wife, come from polygamous families, she says there is no room for another woman in their marriage.

"Polygamy is another way of oppressing women and it should come to an end. There is no single woman who is happy about polygamy but it's just that people have become tolerant. And if we're serious about curbing HIV/AIDS, then everybody must stick to one partner," she says.

Dlamini's father died when she was only five years old, and despite her career as activist and now politician, Dlamini has tried to ensure her children get plenty of attention. Whenever she is available she spends time with her family and she tells her children to inform her whenever they feel neglected.

Four years ago, Dlamini almost gave up the fight for women’s rights. She says she felt helpless after realising that despite the work done by SWAGAA in trying to stop violence in the country, incidents of violence against women and children were still rising. A six-week leadership course for women in the United States, where Dlamini together with other 21 participants from all over the world learned about the struggle towards the emancipation of women in the U.S., led her to rethink her decision.

"That was in 2004, a year after I had declined to stand for elections although a lot of people from my constituency encouraged me to take part," said Dlamini. "I refused to stand because I told myself that I wanted to continue lobbying from outside the House."

But that was to change as the trip to the U.S. made her realise she could have a greater impact in the lives of many women if she were to go to Parliament. Dlamini is very clear what her mission is at Parliament.

"I want to advocate for laws that will protect women and children and also uplift the standard of living for everyone."

This is why she would not like to be appointed a cabinet minister; she feels there is a lot of ground she can cover in Parliament as a backbencher. Dlamini said remaining a backbencher would enable her to be more effective with regards to shaping the country's policies and legislation by questioning ministers on issues of national policy.

"Being on the ground will also help me raise and debate issues that are pertinent in the country’s legislation," she said.

She believes Swaziland is a rich country but only lacks good leadership, which is why the majority of the people lack basic necessities. She would like to help in the turning around of the collapsing health and education systems, which were once the best in the Southern Africa region. She hates corruption, which has become endemic in the country, and believes strong measures have to be put in place to curb it.

As she exits SWAGAA to take up the new challenge in parliament, Dlamini is asking for one gift from her staff. "Keep SWAGAA going stronger and stronger."

 
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