Friday, April 10, 2015

Blog #8: Swaziland: Rape and HIV a Common Reality for Young Swazi Women

Swaziland, Africa, is a small village located about 20km from Swaziland's capital, Mbabane.  In this village, the prevalence of HIV among Swazi women aged 18-19 is 14 percent, compared to 31 percent for 20-24 year old women, according to the 2011 Swaziland HIV Incidence Management Survey or SHIMS.  In contrast, men in these age brackets are reported as having a 1 percent and 7 percent prevalence of HIV, respectively.   Also in Swaziland, according to a UNICEF report, one in three Swazi girls experience sexual violence before age 18, which greatly contributes to the HIV rates seen in this village. The connection between these statistics goes back to the patriarchal notion of the village, and the fact that women are viewed as being subordinate, and serving as property, or objects to be 'owned.'
Furthermore, the poverty in this region contributes to the rampant spread of the disease, especially when 63 percent of Swaziland's population lives below the poverty line, and unemployment rates are at an estimated 40 percent.  This economic disparity drives the HIV gender disparity, because women seek out "transactional sex" with men, where condom use is generally compromised.  Younger women are more frequently seeking out older men for these sexual partnerships, seeking financial support in exchange for sex.  The catch?  Polygamy is not uncommon in Africa, and women are not empowered enough to say no or insist on condom use in these interactions.  So, when these men have multiple sexual partners, they're more likely to have HIV.  They transfer the disease to these younger women because, as previously stated, the women are not empowered to ask for such measures, and rumors about condom use paired with the lack of male education on how to use condoms makes such contraceptive efforts nearly futile.
Particularly, in this village, the issue lies in the legislation and lack of access to information to women.  Despite the prevalence of sexual violence and the illegality of rape in Swaziland, the punishment of up to 15 years in prison is almost null-and-void when acquittal rates are high, resulting in light sentences.  Efforts to pass the "Sex Offenses and Domestic Violence" bill, which defines rape and sexual harassment, have proven futile since 2006.  Additionally, although women are the most vulnerable to HIV, given their conditions, there are very few programs geared towards girls and young women. This, in combination with the delay of sex education, it is restricted at school until girls are in their teens, has proven to be too late to make a difference for many young women.

Unfortunately for Swaziland, their reasons for the spread of HIV among their village is the same for much of Africa.  The poverty level - which brings a lack of education, medical care, and prevention programs, along with the patriarchal society is a fatal combination for many women.  To improve these conditions, it will take improving the structural and cultural causes that lie at the root of the problem.  This includes women's rights, which would reduce gender based violence, along with issues such as poverty.  The article did make mention of the decline of HIV rates since 2010, thanks to increased access to medical testing and outreach programs, along with the successful prevention of mother to child transmissions.  This shows that things are slowly changing, but this change needs to continue and even improve, so that maybe in 10-15 years, HIV will be a historical event for this region, rather than their reality.  Should this trend continue, the death rate of women and men in Africa would drop, and people could live longer, healthier lives as they improve their sustainability of Africa and especially Swaziland.

Megan Wrench

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