UN Envoy’s Report on Swazi and Basotho Women

I’ve been doing these media briefings, after every trip to Africa, for almost five years. They all tend to follow the same pattern: a narrative of what I’ve observed, a critical analysis of the issues that have been raised and my thoughts on what should then be done. On this occasion, I’m going to break the pattern. Last month, I visited the Kingdoms of Lesotho and Swaziland from February 8th to the 15th. I intend to provide a cursory overview of the main findings, but save particular focus for women and orphans. Then I shall attempt to tie that focus directly to the current preoccupation with UN reform. In so doing, I shall not be charitable. In the case of both Lesotho and Swaziland, the virus has the countries by their throats and they are gasping for survival. In Lesotho, the Demographic Health Survey of 2005 showed a prevalence rate of 25%. Swaziland continues to have the highest prevalence rate in the world at 42.6%. In its recent antenatal survey of pregnant women between the ages of 25 and 29, the prevalence rate was 56.3%. That’s the highest prevalence I have ever seen registered in any age group anywhere. The mind fractures at the thought of it. Both countries are making frenzied efforts to provide anti-retroviral treatment. In the case of Swaziland, remarkably, they slightly exceeded their three by five’ target for the end of 2005. In the case of Lesotho, lamentably, they came nowhere near the target. In both countries, there is a fatal paucity of human resource capacity. In both countries, there is a desperate shortage of health professionals. In both countries, many of the professionals they do have end up in western nations, or in other countries in the sub-region such as South Africa. Both Lesotho and Swaziland are attempting to create new professional or semi-professional career lines to compensate for what’s been lost. And in both countries, the emphasis on training commands an almost supernatural zeal, intensity and commitment. In both Lesotho and Swaziland, there are special features of note. In Lesotho, the country has embarked on an undertaking unique in Africa: the government intends to offer HIV counseling and testing to every household in the land by the end of 2007 in what is called the Know Your Status campaign. To that end, seven thousand people are being trained to fan out across the country to implement the campaign in what is surely one of the most ambitious initiatives on the continent. Lesotho knows it is fighting for survival: words like extinction and annihilation are commonplace. The Know Your Status campaign is meant, unflinchingly, to confront the unthinkable. Fortunately, Lesotho has one of the most gifted and committed political cabinets in all of Southern Africa. If the country can be saved, they will save it. In Swaziland, there is now enshrined, just last month, after years of debate, a new constitution. It confers many rights on the citizenry, amongst them the right to free primary education, a subject of immense controversy in the past. Free primary education will usher in a new era for the children of the country. Equally significant is the widespread discussion, at every level, of the meaning of volunteerism. Swaziland, more than any other country I’ve encountered, is engaged in an intense debate around compensation, both direct and indirect, for the caregivers who labour valiantly to sustain communities, families and individuals in the face of the pandemic. Moreover, Swaziland has one of the most impressive National AIDS Councils in all of Africa. If it was able to do its work unimpeded by funds, capacity and politics, Swaziland might just be able to make a miraculous recovery. At this point, the obstacles remain formidable. Finally I must, I think, mention the King of Swaziland, who obviously exerts huge power over the country, and has been criticized by many, myself included, for his apparent failure to rally the country against the depredations of the virus. On this visit, I had a private one-on-one meeting with the King, and while I don’t feel at liberty to divulge the content of a confidential conversation, I can say that we discussed, directly and openly, every controversial subject with which the King has been associated. I hope something comes of it. The United Nations family, and the Resident Coordinator in particular, stand ready to follow-up. This is of immense value because the UN is well-respected within the ranks of governmental officialdom in Swaziland. But for the primary purpose of this press briefing, I want to turn to the situation of women and children in both countries. In Lesotho, the government has still not passed the Married Persons Equality Bill which is intended to enshrine equality between men and women in marriage. It has been debated for a number of years, and is yet to be embraced by parliament. Predictably, under customary law, women are regarded as minors; married women are under the guardianship of their husbands and unmarried women are under the guardianship of their fathers, brothers or even sons. This circumstance is both untenable and intolerable. But it speaks directly to the prevailing gender inequality. I was talking just this morning with Dr. Jim Kim of the World Health Organization, who spearheaded the three by five treatment campaign. He’s just returned from Lesotho, carrying a remarkable piece of data: incredibly enough, the HIV prevalence rate for young girls, fifteen to seventeen years of age, stands at roughly 30 per cent. This is obviously a disaster for the country, but it reconfirms, yet gain, the wildly disproportionate vulnerability of women and girls. In the case of Swaziland, I’ve already noted the terrifying HIV prevalence rate of 56.3 per cent for pregnant women 25 to 29 years of age. The meaning of gender inequality could not be more starkly expressed. The new constitution, to which I earlier referred, enshrines equality between men and women, but in a country where women are still shackled to the status of minors, that constitutional equality will mean nothing unless it is concretely embodied in legislation. That will be a gargantuan uphill struggle. In both countries, the deluge of orphans is overwhelming. Lesotho is only now beginning to confront the numbers, and hardly knows where to begin. Swaziland is faced with the apparent inevitability that between ten and fifteen per cent of its entire population will consist of orphans by the year 2010. While I was in the country, I encountered a primary school of 350 students, 250 of whom were orphans 70 per cent of the total. How in the world is the educational system expected to cope How in the world is the community expected to cope UNICEF and the World Food Programme and the government are making earnest efforts, but it does resemble Canute standing on the shore turning back the tides. So who comes to the rescue As everywhere else in Africa, it’s the grandmothers. But the grandmothers only survive for so long, and they manifest, yet again, the excruciating reality of gender inequality. What we’re fundamentally dealing with, then, is a legacy of inequality which drives the virus and leads to the devastation of the women and girls of the continent. The legacy is an omnibus catalogue of women’s vulnerability: rape and sexual violence, including marital rape; domestic violence; no sexual autonomy; early marriage of girls to older men; forced marriage; harmful traditional practices, including wife inheritance, widow cleansing, polygamy and female genital mutilation; maternal mortality rates as high as they’ve ever been; sugar Daddies; illiteracy; lack of educational access (the MDG on gender parity in primary schools has already been missed); designation as legal minors; lack of economic and earning power; lack of rights to own and inherit land or property; lack of representation in parliaments and other elected and appointed bodies ? the litany never ends. l To be continued next week

April 2006
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