A culture that encourages HIV/AIDS in Swaziland
Anecdotal evidence that entrenched cultural beliefs among Swazis actively encourage the spread of HIV/AIDS has been confirmed by a joint government and UN report.
The study by UN the Population Fund (UNFPA) and Swaziland’s Ministry of Health and Social Welfare – The State of the Swaziland Population – echoes warnings by local NGOs that “AIDS cannot be stopped unless there is a change in people’s sexual behaviour.”
Despite consistent efforts to curtail the most severe AIDS epidemic in the world, it appears to have gained ground. “Swazis are very traditional people, and their sexual behaviour is inbred and totally against safe sexual practices, like condom use and monogamous relationships, that limit the spread of HIV,” Thandi Mngomezulu, an HIV testing counsellor in Manzini, the country’s main commercial city, told IRIN.
The report, based on focus groups and surveys, found that maintaining a centuries-old cultural belief in procreation to increase the population size, was having devastating consequences in the age of AIDS.
“It’s helpful to have scientific data to focus our efforts. For instance, the study shows that Swazis believe it is ideal if a Swazi woman has a minimum of five children. We can ask people why this is, and how to counter the belief,” said Mngomezulu.
Joseph Dlamini, a pastor and youth guidance counsellor, told researchers that “It all boils down to this: Nothing must stand in the way of procreation. Increase the population at all cost.” However, he noted that this belief had come about when the population was a tenth of its present size of about one million.
“All humans have sexual urges, but behaviour is determined by social norms. Swazis still believe that a woman’s role is to bear children continuously, and that a man’s role is to impregnate multiple partners, which is why polygamy is so strong here, both as an institution and in the minds of young men, who may not ever get married but still have many children from multiple girlfriends,” Dlamini said.
A survey of nearly 2,000 women attending antenatal clinics in the country’s four regions found that 42 percent tested HIV positive in 2008, up 3 percent from the last survey, in 2006.
If population growth was the social factor prompting sexual behaviour, the report found it ironic that sexual practices intended to boost the population had opened the door to AIDS and decreased life expectancy. In 2000 life expectancy was 61 years; now it is 32 years, according to the Human Development Index of the UN Development Programme.
“In Swazi culture, decision-making has traditionally been a male prerogative. Family-planning decisions, therefore, lie with the man,” the study found. “Women report that they have been subjected to continuous childbirth by their husbands or in-laws, against their will.”
Researchers noted that Swazi men strongly defended the practice of “kungena”, or wife inheritance, whereby a widow becomes the wife of the deceased man’s brother, a practice found to spread HIV.
Swazi men defended polygamy as a cultural necessity, but also lamented lapsed cultural practices they said could stop the spread of HIV/AIDS, like “kuhlawula”, in terms of which men or boys who impregnated unmarried women were fined five cows by their community elders, but these laws were no longer enforced.
Another cultural factor was gender preference – often insisted upon by in-laws – that a woman bear a boy. The birth of a birth of a girl is immediately followed by an effort to have a male heir, because in traditional law only a boy can lead a family into its next generation.
Other data followed established patterns in developing countries: where there is urbanization and a more educated populace, birth rates decline. Swaziland is mainly rural, but in the northern Hhohho Region, where the capital, Mbabane, is located, the fertility rate is 3.6 children per female, compared to 4.3 children in the underdeveloped southern Shiselweni Region.
The fertility rate among women whose education finished at primary school was 5.1, but only 2.4 – less than half the number of children – among students who advanced to tertiary education. The poorest Swazi women have a fertility rate of 5.5, while the figure among the richest is only 2.6 children.
“The rich/poor fertility divide is testament to the lack of a government social safety net – like a good pension scheme for the elderly – so, for those without assets, their only security comes from lots of children, who together can support their parents when they are older,” said Tanya Kunene, a social welfare officer in Manzini Region.
The study found that, like many traditional societies, Swazis lived in isolation and were generally suspicious of other cultures – practices like monogamy, family planning and birth control were considered foreign and suspect.
That may be changing. According to the study, some survey participants “called for the recognition of multiculturalism in Swaziland, which would create tolerance for other cultures co-existing with our own”, and thus make “foreign” practices found to be effective in curbing HIV/AIDS more acceptable.