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Q&A: Escalating Violence Against Women in Swaziland

Mantoe Phakathi interviews HLOBISILE DLAMINI-SHONGWE, gender activist

MBABANE, Swaziland, Nov 27 2008 (IPS) - Still wearing a campaign t-shirt with the slogan "FED UP: with violence against women", Dlamini-Shongwe, the public relations officer for the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA) is fresh from the Nov. 25 launch of the16 days activism against gender-based violence at Jubilee Park in Manzini.

IPS: Today you were launching the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence which ends on Dec. 10. What do you hope to achieve through this campaign? Hlobisile Dlamini-Shongwe: Basically it is when we look back and take stock of the achievements in the interventions against gender-based violence and also take stock of the level of violence in the country in terms of whether we are increasing or going down considering the statistics.

It's also a time to bring people together and say hey it's not every day perhaps that you want to listen to us and take action, but during the 16 days let's be together and remember those who died through violence. This is a chance also to let society pledge that we are not going to engage in violent actions and also not condone violence done by others.

IPS: The observation by the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA) is that violence against women and girls in the country is on the increase despite efforts to curb this scourge. How is the level of gender-based violence in the country? HD: Disappointingly the numbers keep going up. We now talk of an average of 13 cases reported every week and, of these, 80 percent is violence perpetrated against women and children, particularly girl children.

IPS: What are the reasons for the continued women violence despite the number of interventions against gender-based violence? HD: The increase in numbers is two-fold. One it could be fact that previously, which was before SWAGAA was formed, people rarely reported cases on gender-based violence because it was considered an internal issue kept within the family. But now a lot of people are coming out to report.

Secondly, it could be that violence is escalating among society for a number of reasons.

IPS: What could those reasons be? HD: It is not just the escalation of violence that is disturbing, but we're now seeing more and more of brutal violence than ever before, which is very worrying.

This can be attributed to a number of factors such as social depression. As society we're at a period where we're very depressed because of the high rates of unemployment, poverty, HIV/AIDS and unfortunately we are unable to deal with the issues and therefore we resort to violence.

The other critical issue is that there is too much access to weapons in the country. Even school children are found in possession of pocket knives which they end up using in violent actions.

Lastly, the law is a bit too lax in terms of addressing gender-based violence which is why people go on perpetrating this crime.

IPS: While we're on the issue of laws, what kind of laws does the country need to accelerate the fight against gender-based violence? HD: There are number of loopholes regarding laws on violence in the country. Currently we have rape defined by the law as an unlawful sexual encounter with a woman and this leaves out boys who have been sodomised. We have a law dating back to 1920 where a case of a woman who has been battered by her husband is considered common assault which is a very minor offence.

Given the rate at which such cases happen, we feel they should be moved to a higher level. According to the law, a child's statement is not enough evidence in cases of rape, there must be an adult who has witnessed this act. We feel a child's statement is enough to convict a perpetrator.

In the era of HIV/AIDS, there is still no law in Swaziland that deals with marital rape yet we know that it's difficult for women to negotiate for safe sex yet there is no law which a woman would use against her husband who has raped her. This makes women to be even more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.

Another critical matter is the delay in bringing alleged perpetrators to court.

IPS: How does the delay in justice affect rape cases, especially among children? HD: Today we've seen cases of children who were raped when they were eight years old but three to four years down the line the matter has not been brought to court. Perpetrators end up being freed because the children forget some of the things as they grow older. You find that there also many contradictions in evidence – skinny dark man is no longer the grey-haired fat man who was arrested five years ago.

IPS: HIV/AIDS prevalence remains high in the country. Thirty-one percent of women as opposed to 20 percent of men in the age group of 15-49 years are infected with HIV. What is the connection between HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence? HD: There is a strong link between gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS. In all the eight years that I've worked for SWAGAA I've never come across a rape case where the perpetrator has used a condom. Most women are physically abused and they fail to negotiate for safe sex and, what's worse, marital rape is not a crime in Swaziland.

IPS: Recently we've seen rising numbers of property grabbing where families of people who've died come and forcefully take away property from orphans and widows. HD: Property grabbing is becoming the order of the day. Unfortunately, we don't have a comprehensive social welfare structure where children and widows can run to have their problems addressed.

Right now we see a lot of orphans and widows being kicked out of their homes or have their properties taken away from them. There is little that is done to help them.

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