Safeguarding women and children in Swaziland stops AIDS

When health officials talk of the need for “behaviour change” as the only way to end the AIDS onslaught, they are not just talking about change in sexual behaviour, but change in the way men treat women and girls in our society.

The more “in control” a woman or girl is of her life, the less likely she will experience unwanted pregnancies, unwanted sexual advances or HIV/AIDS. When an empowered woman says “no,” her word is the entire preventative needed. Unfortunately, a majority of our women do not have such a voice, concluded a comprehensive study.

“The prevalence of physical and sexual violence among females aged 13-24 indicate that violence is a major problem in Swaziland,” reported the National Survey on Violence Experienced by Female Children and Youths in Swaziland. “Very little research has been conducted on violence against children in Swaziland, although violence is a risk factor for a wide range of mental and physical health problems,” the report indicated.

One of the survey’s key and unsettling findings is that one out of three Swazi females reported experiencing some form of sexual violence before reaching 18 years of age. Two out of three female adults, aged 18 to 24, experienced some form of sexual violence.

From their infancies to age 24, nearly half (48 2%) of Swazi women experienced some form of sexual violence.

The hope of all girls of having a meaningful “first time” sexual experience with a compatible partner is a dream unobtainable for a majority of Swazi girls and women, many of whose first encounters were not wanted by them. Six out of 10 Swazi females reported that they were forced into their first sexual experiences. Of these, 5% said they were raped or otherwise “forced.” Women reported submitting to unwanted sex out of fear of physical violence. The survey documented a foundation for their fears. 28% of girls 13 to 17 years old experienced physical violence. The likelihood that they will be assaulted increased as they grew into adulthood, with 33% of women 18 to 24 years old reporting being violence survivors.

Exposure to education is no protection against violence, according to the survey. A sizable 98% of women and girls surveyed had been to school. 29% of women and girls reported unwanted pregnancies.

Manzini is home to the anti-violence NGO Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA), which offers counselling and legal and medical referrals to violence survivors. SWAGAA’s statistics have shown a steady rise in cases of violence against women during the past decade.

The increase has been credited in part to better reporting of such crimes. However, some observers say worsening economic and humanitarian conditions in the country, along with the belief held by some HIV positive men that sleeping with a virgin girl can are AIDS, has caused an actual rise in violence against women and children.

Seeking to describe the magnitude of the problem of violence against women and children, the survey found that despite the multiplicity of sexual encounters reported by women under 24, only 12.9% of them were married.

Wide participation for the project was enjoined from the Swaziland government’s ministries of Health and Social Welfare, Education and Justice, NGOs like SWAGAA and World Vision, and UNAIDS, the UN Population Fund, UNICEF and the World Health Organisation.

For the survey, 48 households were selected in each of 40 areas of the country. A female between the ages of 13 and 24 was randomly chosen to speak to interviewers in a confidential, voluntary and anonymous manner.

Eight teams composed of 41 interviewers, all women, collected data. To establish physical violence, key questions were asked like, “Has any adult ever kicked, bitten, slapped, hit you with a fist, threatened you with a weapon or thrown something at you?”

Questions were also asked to establish emotional and sexual abuse. About 1 900 households were visited, resulting in 1 300 interviews.

“Violence has a huge cost to society. The physical consequences include injuries to the body and disability. The psychological consequence include alcohol and drug abuse, depression, anxiety, development delays, eating disorders, suicidal tendencies, feelings of shame and guilt,” said one of the officials associated with the study.

The sexual and reproductive consequences include sexual dysfunction, unwanted pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases, he said. Among girls 13 to 17 years old, one out of six reported experiencing some form of sexual violence during the past year. The number rose to one out of four young women between 18 and 24 who survived sexual violence this past year. The inevitable psychological toll is also recorded.

One of the saddest statistics reported by the survey is that depression infects a majority of Swazi women. 67% told surveyors they felt depressed.

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