Sexualisation of Swazi women

King Mswati III, born Makhosetive on 19th April 1968, succeeded his late father, Sobhuza II, in 1986. He has 13 wives and has never been known to have undergone an HIV test.

Thembi Nkambule, head of the Swaziland National Network for People Living with HIV and AIDS, said there was a great need for government officials, including the King, to lead the way and be tested. King Mswati, 38, is currently married to 13 wives with 27 children.

Polygamy is common and is enshrined as a man’s right in Swaziland’s new constitution. The King has maintained that polygamy does not cause AIDS- it is unfaithfulness that spreads the virus.

Late signs and symptoms of HIV infection include: the development of pneumonia, toxoplasmosis, cryptosporidiosis, and other opportunistic infections. Patients start to waste and lose weight. The viral load continues to increase, and the CD4 count falls to less than 200 cells per cubic milliliter. These patients have met the definition of AIDS.

Advanced cases of AIDS manifest as a continuation of new opportunistic infections such as cytomegalovirus infection, Mycobacterium avium complex, cryptococcal meningitis, progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, and other infections that commonly occur secondary to a severely depressed immune system. The viral load increases dramatically and the CD4 count becomes less than 50 cells per cubic milliliter.

Janis Kuby in her book entitled Immunology wrote: “AIDS patients often test negative for antibody in the late stages of the disease”. Crooked traditional healers and witch doctors have often cashed in on this late stage of HIV infection.

In Swaziland, Information, Education and Communication (IEC) campaigns have often focussed on condom use but avoid the sensitive topic of reducing sexual partners and polygamy. But many people are now suffering from condom fatigue: ‘I think condoms are good but, aai, I hate those things’.

Prime Minister Themba Dlamini urged Swazi husbands to “satisfy” their wives in bed, so that sexually starved spouses would not seek lovers outside the home.

A study by World Vision reported that in several southern villages, roughly three out of five residents, both men and women, reported having two or more sexual partners in the past three months.

In order to face the HIV epidemic head-on, a slogan ‘Makhwapheni Uyabulala’ meaning ‘your secret lover can kill you’ was coined in July this year. The word makhwapheni, pronounced “ma-kwa-penny”, means “your secret lover”. The other message was: “watifaka elubishini” which means “and more orphans were left behind.” These messages were distributed to everyone as cell phone text messages.

Condom promotion campaigns have had little impact hence the need to target people in multiple sexual relationships, the main factor fuelling the high rates of HIV in Swaziland. The Swazi Observer newspaper has also followed with a caption: “Say No to Multiple Sex Partners!” in capital red letters on the front page, just below the newspaper’s nameplate.

The makhwapheni ads have incensed HIV activists who insist that nobody would want to be called a makhwapheni. The activists say the ads will discourage people from voluntary testing hence will drive HIV positive persons underground.

In Swaziland, HIV positive women face many challenges including stigma and discrimination, a patriarchal culture that allows polygamy, poverty, low levels of education, violence, and subjugation.

Commentators have also blamed the annual Umhlanga Reed Dance for sexualization of Swazi women. The Reed Dance is an assembly of about 20,000 girls approximately aged between 15 to 19 years. The scantly dressed girls, sex symbols in themselves, bring tall reeds to the Queen Mother. Although the King has used the occasion to choose wives on a few occasions, the ceremony is not meant for the King to select a wife.

A proposed Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act stipulates life imprisonment for rapists who infect their victims with HIV. The proposed law would also impose a five-year prison term on HIV-positive persons who engaged in consensual sex but infected their partner with HIV. HIV activists have slammed the planned law.

l Kazhila Chinsembu is a molecular biologist in the Department of Biology at the University of Namibia. Email comments to

December 2006
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