Swaziland: Economically empowering women to combat abuse

Until last year, Swazi women were legally regarded as minors.
Most Swazi women who face domestic violence do not take their children and walk out of the house. "They say, 'who is going to feed me?'" Nonhlanhla Dlamini, Director of the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA), told IRIN. But this is changing.
An innovative SWAGAA programme to empower women economically in Swaziland's patriarchal society is helping many out of a cycle of abuse and dependency. Until last year, women were regarded as minors in terms of the law, unable to own property or open a bank account without the permission of a male relative or husband. Financial dependence on their abuser has usually forced them to endure, but "with this new initiative we are telling them, 'you can actually feed yourself'. You don't have to rely on your husband for everything if you are bringing income into the household," said Dlamini.

Swaziland is a mostly rural nation. About 350 chiefs preside over communities where 80 percent of the population lives, mostly as subsistence farmers removed from commercial activity.

The Swazi Women's Economic Empowerment Project started early in 2006; today, there are 32 cooperatives serving over 47,000 beneficiaries, mainly women and their dependents, which can even include husbands in a country with an unemployment rate of 40 percent.

Helping themselves

Project ideas are thought up by women, who form the groups. They make clothing, handicrafts or soft furnishings; raise poultry, pigs or cattle, produce dairy products, or grow and prepare herbal medicines. The women usually already have the knowledge and skills required for a particular cooperative enterprise, but they need inspiration and instruction to exploit their knowledge commercially.

"These are actually very poor communities, and it is exciting to expect - based on what has happened thus far - that five years from now they will have lots of money and they can get into bigger investments," said Dlamini. She said the initial purpose of the programme was two-fold: to free women from abusive situations, and from grinding poverty.

"Our assessments into the causes of domestic violence found that men are poor, and are frustrated that they are not good providers. If the woman is dependant on the man for everything, from salt to candles, the man can tend to be abusive out of his frustration. When he is in total control, there is bullying sometimes. If a woman brings something into the house, the man loses that total control," Dlamini said.

The programme works directly with communities and does not involve government bureaucracies. "We are targeting the grass roots, and there is no other way than to go out to the rural areas, call meetings, and discuss things with the women directly," said Harriet Dube, a programme officer. "They do not get newspapers out there [in the countryside]. First, we go to the chiefs, the community leaders and elders, and tell them what it is all about, and they call the meeting."

Funding for the programme comes from German donors, but all financial inputs for enterprises, no matter how modest, come from the women themselves. "The women receive no financial assistance to start their projects. They have to understand that this is their money, and they will take good care of it. The only thing we give them is the training," said Dlamini. Dube is one of the instructors who tell the women how to start a group with their neighbours and female relatives, and how to turn an idea into an enterprise.

Helping their families

"Everyone is equal in the cooperative. There is no company director or even chairman for the meetings. Everyone has to take responsibility for chairing the meetings," she said. "Each person keeps a record of how much they contributed, and another member must countersign. They are also instructed how to do audits of their companies."

The new businesswomen's families have been the main beneficiaries so far. "It is having a very positive impact on the children," said Dlamini. "The women are telling us, 'Now we are able to pay our children's school fees. I am able to buy a pair of shoes with the money I actually earned. We are able to get a decent meal, which is something we couldn't get before', in fact, they are lamenting that this programme did not come a long time ago."

There is also evidence that domestic violence has waned in the households of project members, and SWAGAA has not received reports of gender or child violence perpetrated against cooperative members.

The programme foresees an economic boom coming from the new empowerment. "In 20 years this will be really big. The poor women of today will be businesswomen. The cooperatives will grow, and there will be a real impact on the national economy," said Dlamini, who travelled to India last year to see how similar, well-established projects there were faring.

"The cooperatives [in India] are earning millions. The banks are taking them seriously, because they have actually become big depositors," she said. "I can see this happening in Swaziland."

3 July 2007