Improving Women’s Rights in Swaziland: the good, the bad, and the future

Former Swaziland Project Officer, Hannah Macdonald, talks us through the situation for women in Swaziland and her experiences working on the ‘Improving Women’s Rights in Swaziland’ project.

Women are powerful agents of change, and this has been shown time, and time again in Swaziland. Twenty-three thousand, nine hundred and sixty-seven: this is the number of rural women who have been mobilised in the last four years. Mobilised by the hard-working three-women project team, the support staff at the Foundation for Socio and Economic Justice (FSEJ), and the formidable members of the Swaziland Rural Women’s Assembly (SRWA). My experience as the Swaziland Project Officer for this project has been one of great learning, personal growth, and outright admiration of the Swazi people.
For the first time, this project has given women the opportunity to participate in advancing their own rights. Women, who did not even know what was in the constitution, now know and understand what their rights are. Additionally, they have become a part of a growing women’s movement that is mounting pressure on families, communities, civil society, and the national government to ensure these limited rights are respected, and that further rights for women are ratified.
Swazi women’s engagement and participation in civic education workshops, public meetings, and other activities has seen a rise in rural women in decision making positions, many utilising their increased knowledge, a reported increase in self-confidence, and a reported reduction in feelings of isolation amongst women.

Despite my research, and hours of reading, I couldn’t comprehend the situation for Swazi people, especially for women until my first trip to Swaziland. I spent hours talking with members of SRWA, FSEJ, trade unions, civil society organisations, and activists. Widening my understanding helped me grasp how serious the situation was and led me to feel deeply that the international community, and regional partners, has and continues to let down the Swazi people.
Despite signing the United Nations Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), committing itself to take steps to “respect, protect and fulfil the equal rights of women”, and as a member of the Commonwealth (and thus, bound by the Commonwealth Charter), Swaziland continues to seriously and persistently violate principles relating to the equal rights of women. The international community has failed to hold Swaziland to account for its discrimination against women.The Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence bill, with progressive approaches in tackling sexual abuse against women and children, was developed in 2009 but has still failed to be enacted, derailing positive steps in protecting women. Statistics show that 1 in 3 girls experience at least one incident of sexual violence before they reach the age of 18 (Amnesty International, 2010), but women in Swaziland believe that this number is probably higher in reality. A major concern for Swazi women is intimate partner violence, including marital rape and other forms of gender-based violence. Every woman I spoke to in Swaziland had either been a victim of gender-based violence or knew someone who was. Every day, local Swazi newspapers report on cases of sexual violence against women and children, and perpetrators handed down light sentences, if any at all.

The ‘Improving Women’s Rights’ project in Swaziland has shown the power of civil society, and the importance of grassroots movements. Our partners in Swaziland have shown a great strength in their ability to mobilise high numbers of rural women, to be exact, twenty-three thousand, nine hundred, and sixty-seven over the past four years.

Many achievements have been made, and huge challenges have been overcome. There is still a long way to go.

An overview of our project Improving Women’s Rights in Swaziland is available for download here.

About the Author

Robyn K