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Swazi sex ban lifted

August 23rd, 2005

Dr Petra

Women in Swaziland have been celebrating the end of a four-year sex ban that had been imposed to combat the HIV epidemic in the country. King Mswati III reinstated the ‘umchwasho’ chastity ritual in 2001 where girls aged under 18 were forbidden to have sex.

The girls wore scarves or tassels during that time to indicate their chastity, and if an umchawasho girl was approached by a man for sex she was able to claim back a cow as compensation for his attempted breach of the sex ban.

The ritual was not without its critics. Many Swazi people considered it to be an old fashioned move, and trust in the ban weakened when in 2001 the king impregnated his ninth wife when she was 17. Still more people within Swaziland and outside the country argued the focus on girls was unfair, and that umchwasho didn’t prevent sexual abuse of young girls, nor address sexually predatory behaviour in young men. Experts have stated umchwasho hasn’t done much to slow the spread of HIV within Swaziland where 40% of the population are HIV positive. Whilst teen pregnancy and infection rates had slowed, experts claimed this was down to the work of charities and NGOs rather than the sex ban.

At a celebration to mark the end of the ritual girls danced in traditional dress and many claimed to be glad umchwasho had ended “We are so happy that King Mswati ordered us to take off the woolen tassels,” 18-year-old Nombulelo Dlamini was reported as saying in one newspaper. “They were no use because some girls fell pregnant while wearing the same tassels.” She said she had hid hers “because a lot of boys were making fun of us whenever we were spotted wearing them.” Reports also stated some girls were sad the ban had been lifted “Wearing the tassels was good for us young girls because men were scared to touch and abuse us,” said one 16-year-old “Now that we had to take off the woolen tassels we will be vulnerable to abuse.”

We need to focus more on the needs of teenagers in developing countries, particularly those affected by HIV. Many programmes currently do not address sexual politics, negotiating and confidence skills, or give teenagers the ability to say no to sex until they’re ready – and to have safer sex using condoms when they embark on a sexual relationship. In many countries girls are still expected to police sexual relationships and are held responsible if they contract an infection or get pregnant. Meanwhile boys’ aggressively masculine behaviour puts them at risk of harming girls, and of catching infections themselves. Without a focus on both genders, and without comprehensive sex education that includes culturally appropriate negotiating skills, then teens will continue to be at risk.

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