I walked alongside women, men, youth, and young children at a One in Nine Campaign march earlier this month in Cape Town, South Africa to protest the failure of justice systems worldwide to protect victims of sexual assault, gender-based violence, and murder. This march was a highlight of the 11th Association for Women in Development (AWID) International Forum, but it was also a sad moment for me as a Swazi woman because it reminded me of the privilege that men in Swaziland enjoy.
A striking example of this is the David Simelane case. Arrested in 2001 for killing over 40 women and children in Swaziland, Simelane has not yet been brought to trial. He preyed on vulnerable women with promises of employment, only to brutally murder and often rape them.
But in truth, it was easy for David to lure these women. In Swaziland, close to 70 percent of women are unemployed, yet they are most often the primary caretakers. Faced with this responsibility, women are vulnerable to exploitation by men who offer them jobs in return for sexual favors.
This dynamic is one of the reasons why HIV/AIDS has an increasingly feminine face in Swaziland. Today, over a quarter of adults in Swaziland are infected with HIV, and over half are women. If women continue to be in such vulnerable positions in which they lack the power to protect themselves during sex, the number of women with HIV/AIDS will only continue to grow. Global AIDS policies and funding must prioritize access to female condoms and investment in microbicide development so that women can protect themselves.
Although a painful memorial to the many women who have suffered or died from gender-based violence, the One in Nine Campaign march was a glaring reminder of the possibilities of change if we work as a collective. So, as we observe 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, we Swazi women and men must take action to demand that our children see the face of justice. This means:
- Holding the Swazi government accountable. In August, leaders from 11 Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, including Swaziland, committed to women’s rights by signing the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development. In doing so, governments pledged to eliminate gender-based violence and ensure equal access to justice and protection before the law for women. Leaders also agreed to address the reproductive health needs of women and men, and in doing so, "develop gender sensitive strategies to prevent new (HIV) infections." Such bold commitments require civil society to continue to remind our government of the changes they agreed to make, and demand that we see these visions realized.
- Protecting girls and women against violence and sexual coercion. Swaziland’s Sexual Offenses and Domestic Violence bill must become a law. The bill proposes a more strict definition of rape, and seeks to criminalize marital rape. This bill has been on the table since 2005, and is still waiting to be reviewed by Parliament. It is the duty of the new Parliament, entering into office next January, to sign this bill into law.
- Bringing David Simelane to justice. We must demand that a date is set for the trial and that the trial ensues, so that the Swazi justice system tells the families of the victims, the country, and the world about the value of women’s and children’s lives.