Last Updated: Friday, 19 December 2014, 08:16 GMT

Swaziland: Compelling communities to end child abuse

Publisher Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)
Publication Date 10 June 2008
Cite as Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Swaziland: Compelling communities to end child abuse, 10 June 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/484f855a14.html [accessed 19 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

MBABANE, 10 June 2008 (IRIN) - New statistics revealing the alarming number of female children that are victims of abuse is seeing child welfare and anti-abuse groups turning to Swazi tradition in the hope of reviving a sense of community responsibility towards the wellbeing of Swaziland's children.

The findings from a demographic survey on violence against women and children, conducted by the government's Central Statistics Office, found that two-thirds of 13-24 year-old females reported feeling depressed, and 18 percent said they had contemplated taking their own lives, while four percent had attempted suicide.

More than half of teenage girls, aged 13-17-years-old, reported depression, and 10 percent of the age group had thought of suicide as an option to their problems. The high rates of depression were attributed to the extreme levels of domestic abuse and violence experienced by them.

"Why are our girls so troubled? The evidence shows they feel powerless, helpless in the face of abuse, faceless when it comes to being seen and voiceless when it comes to being heard," Alexandra Simelane, a social worker at a health clinic on the outskirts of Manzini, Swaziland's second city, told IRIN.

About 38 percent of girls and young women aged between 13 and 24-years-old reported difficulty sleeping and 29 percent had experienced unwanted pregnancies. The figures were even more dramatic for young female adults [aged 18-24 years-old]. About half had problems sleeping and had also gone through unwanted pregnancy.

The findings echo the results of a study released by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in April 2008. According to the UNICEF survey, every third woman in Swaziland had been sexually abused as a child and one in four had experienced physical violence.

Neighbourhood watch

"This portrait of troubled girls is at odds with the traditional supportive family and community environment Swazis are famous for," Simelane said.

According to Nonhlanhla Dlamini, director of the Manzini-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA) communities needed to restore their sense of responsibility towards the health and happiness of children.

"There still are caring people, but as a whole we seem to have lost that concern for one another. We need to bring back that time when every child had a parent in every adult Swazi. Then we may stop the abuse, HIV-infection and trauma inflicted on girls that we are finding so much of in our research," Dlamini said.

With HIV/AIDS prevalence at 33.4 percent among people aged between 15 and 49, Swaziland has the world's highest infection rate. As a result, life expectancy has halved from nearly 60 years-old in the 1990s to just over 30 years-old in 2008. And according to UNICEF, in two years time, 200,000 Swazi children would have been orphaned by the AIDS pandemic - about one-fifth of the current population.

"Particularly with so many child-headed households ? our survey found that almost one out of 10 of all girls have lost both parents and are living as orphans. Neighbours can no longer just sit back and fold their arms and mind their own business," Dlamini said.

One out of 10 households in Swaziland is run by children and anecdotal evidence collected by the survey suggested a fear of reprisal from abusers kept neighbours from helping a child thought to be in distress.

"Perpetrators of violence know they can get away with it now. We are creating a mechanism to give support to girls, to give them voices," Dlamini said.

In an attempt to involve community members, SWAGAA, with UNICEF support, launched a community volunteer programme in 2004, which is informally known as the "shoulders to cry on" programme, and is now up and running in the country's 350 chiefdoms.

Some 8,000 volunteers have been trained to provide support and council victims of abuse Dlamini said. "Girls can go to report their problems in confidence and safety, we are telling girls they have someone to seek out."

But, according to the survey, Swaziland's deepening poverty meant that families felt they were already overstretched and had little to offer. "People who used to share what little they have no longer have anything to share - this leads to alienation amongst once close neighbours," Jabu Dlamini, Coordinator of Community Action for Child's Rights Programme in the Deputy Prime Minister's Office, told IRIN.

The survey also found that 60 percent of Swazi men felt it was acceptable to beat their wives. "Men have to learn that this is not only unacceptable but they cannot fall back on Swazi tradition, saying this is customary... it has never been Swazi custom to beat a woman," Simelane said

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