Swaziland: Facing the culture shock of monogamy

Polygamy is enshrined as a man's right in Swaziland's new constitution, but women led by King Mswati's eldest daughter are having none of it, taking on the traditionalists that run the country.
"Polygamy brings all advantages in a relationship to men, and this to me is unfair and evil," Princess Sikhanyiso, 18, told the press this week in an ongoing debate that has stirred deep emotions.
The constitution signed into law by her father earlier this year recognises "marriage through customary rites", which includes multiple partners. But it does not sanction forced marriage, a practice known as "kuteka", another Swazi tradition condemned as abhorrent by rights groups.

"Polygamy was instituted for one thing: to create children for the family's and the nation's survival at a time of low life expectancies and high infant mortality," said Abigail Mbila, a clerk at an accountancy firm in the commercial town of Manzini.

"Now we have a surplus population, manual labour is no longer required on farms, and children need schooling, clothes, healthcare and technologies that did not exist when there was a purpose for men to have multiple wives - wives whose job was to be barefoot and pregnant for the duration of their short lives."

Mbila and many other women across class and generational lines see polygamy as a cultural fig leaf cloaking infidelity. "Swazi men use polygamy as an excuse to have socially sanctioned extramarital affairs by making new girlfriends their 'wives' - then they cast them off for newer girlfriends/wives."

That is high-risk behaviour in a country with the world's highest HIV infection rate, a point made by Princess Sikhanyiso. "AIDS comes through in a polygamous relationship ... when the man suddenly falls in love with other women more than [his wives]," she said.

Her father King Mswati, 38, is currently married to 13 women. Sub-Saharan Africa's last abolute monarch, he has insisted that polygamy does not cause AIDS; it is unfaithfulness that spreads the virus

Traditionalists have not been shy to take on Princess Sikhanyiso. "Polygamy is not a fashion, it is part of our culture. I fail to understand how a person can have the guts to criticise it publicly," said Moi Moi Masilela, one of King Mswati's appointees to parliament.

Prime Minister Themba Dlamini, put on the spot to define the government's view of polygamy in the growing nationwide debate, could only urge Swazi husbands to "satisfy" their wives in bed, so that sexually unfulfilled spouses would not seek lovers outside the home.

Illustrating the traditionalists' views on sexual relations that so infuriate some Swazi women, Masilela submitted, "How does one satisfy a woman in bed? Once a woman conceives, it shows that she gets satisfaction."

Thab'sile Ndwandwe, a graduate student at the University of Swaziland, responded, "This typical view of a man who feels that a woman's sexual desires are satisfied by pregnancy is out of date: it disregards a woman's true needs, but how can a man get to know a woman's needs if he has too many women to know?"

Not only educated urban younger women have turned against polygamy. Last week a Swazi theatre troupe performed a play for traditional women's regiments (lustango), which dealt with child and spousal abuse, and dramatised how HIV could take over a community when polygamous husbands had affairs. The Swazi press quoted several middle-aged and elderly women after seeing the play, one of whom said, "Polygamy has no place in today's society. It spreads AIDS."

Polygamy has often been inseparable from forced marriage. Family elders would arrange unions, and their children dutifully fulfilled their familial obligations after an exchange of the customary cattle dowry.

"Love never entered into the picture. People like myself want love in our relationship," said Khanyisile Shongwe, a secretary at the UN's World Food Programme in Manzini.

On Wednesday a magistrate's court annulled the traditional marriage of a young woman who successfully pleaded that she was forced into the union against her will. The constitution states: "Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses". Women's groups applauded the ruling.

"There is a grey area in the constitution that says Swazi Law and Custom have some standing, but the husband in this case - where would he turn to force the woman back into the marriage? I don't think a chief or council or some other traditional authority would go against the court ruling in this case," said a Manzini attorney.

"But in the end, it isn't what the constitution says, or what Swazi Law and Custom says, it's what women want," noted the lawyer, who asked not to be named. "Polygamy is going to die a natural death because women want the devotion of a husband unfettered by other wives. The picture of a man with as many women as he pleases attending him, with little regard to their needs - it's medieval."

21 Jul 2006 (IRIN)