Swaziland’s Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku lied in New York this week when he said that the Swazi Government recognised women as equal citizens and was committed to the promotion and protection of their rights.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Masuku told the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women that Swaziland was party to several critical human rights instruments, all of which promote gender equality and respect for the rights of women.
Who does he think he is kidding? Only last year (2011) Swaziland was severely criticised at the United Nations Periodic Review of Human Rights meeting for its woeful treatment of women.
Here’s an extract from a report Amnesty International made to the review.
Discrimination against women
The Constitution guarantees women the right to equal treatment with men, a right that “shall include equal opportunities in political, economic and social activities” (Section 28 (1)).
However other provisions of the Constitution appear to fall short of international human rights standards. For example, Section 15(1) that prohibits discrimination on various grounds does not include marital status.
Women’s right to equality in the cultural sphere is also inadequately protected by the provision guaranteeing that “a woman shall not be compelled to undergo or uphold any custom to which she is in conscience opposed”(Section 28(3)). This formulation places an undue burden on the individual woman, whereas international human rights law stipulates that it is the responsibility of the state to prohibit and condemn all forms of harmful practices which negatively affect women. Furthermore, girls and young women are not sufficiently protected under the law from forced or early marriages.
As a consequence of the slow pace of law reform, women remain unprotected by the law and continue to face forms of discrimination permitted by domestic law. The delays cannot be blamed on a lack of resources since the government has been provided with various forms of practical support for this process as it pertains to women’s rights by the EU and UN agencies.
While a number of new bills had had been tabled in Parliament, in May 2010 the Supreme Court ordered that an unconstitutional provision of the 1968 Deeds Registry Act must be amended by Parliament within a year. The provision (Section 16(3)) prohibited most women married under civil law from legally registering immovable property in their own name. By early 2011 the law was still on the statute books unchanged.
Statutory and case law in Swaziland reduce most married women to the status of legal minors. Women married under civil law provisions (the 1964 Marriages Act) are subject to the ‘marital power’ of their husbands. They cannot independently administer property, sign contracts or conduct legal proceedings.
The only exception involves an ante-nuptial contract, and few women seem to be aware of this option.
Women in Swaziland may alternatively marry under customary law under the country’s dual legal system. For them the husband’s ‘marital power’ extends even further and its limits are unclear. The Marriages Act also discriminates between boys and girls, providing a lower minimum age of marriage for girls (16) than boys (18). Under customary law, marriage is permissible for girls as young as 13.
Until the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence draft law is passed, women experiencing gender based violence have few remedies available to them under the law. Under common law, rape is defined narrowly and marital rape is not criminalized in either statute or common law.
The Girls and Women’s Protection Act of 1920 specifically excludes marital rape from its range of offences.