Swaziland Girls Celebrate End of Sex Ban
By THULANI MTHETHWA
Associated Press Writer
August 23, 2005
"MBABANE, Swaziland -- Thousands of Swazi girls Tuesday celebrated the end of a ban on sexual activity that had been imposed as a way to combat AIDS in one of the countries hit hardest by the epidemic.
King Mswati III, Africa's last absolute monarch, had reinstated the "umchwasho" chastity ritual for five years in 2001, banning sexual relations for girls younger than 18. But the move was ridiculed as old-fashioned and unfairly focused on girls --and the king himself was accused of ignoring it.
As part of the end of ban, the girls in private burned the tasseled scarves that symbolized their chastity. About 30,000 girls then later joined the king in a two-hour ceremony in Swaziland's national stadium.
Mswati lifted the ban a year earlier than planned.
During the ban, Swazi girls were instructed to wear the scarves as a sign of their chastity. If an umchwasho girl was approached for sex by a man, she was expected to throw her tassels at his homestead, obliging his family to forfeit a cow.
Experts said the rite did little to slow AIDS in Swaziland, a country of about 1 million where 42.6 percent of pregnant women and up to 40 percent of adults are infected with the virus -- the highest rate in the world.
The overall mood was joyous Tuesday among the crowds gathered for the stadium ceremony and a banquet of beef at the queen mother's residence.
The king's oldest daughter, Princess Sikhanyiso, led the girls in a dance. Newly crowned Miss Swaziland, Zinhle Magongo, was among the bare-breasted participants, who wore traditional short skirts and feathers and porcupine quills in their hair.
"We are so happy that King Mswati ordered us to take off the woolen tassels," said 18-year-old Nombulelo Dlamini. "They were no use because some girls fell pregnant while wearing the same tassels."
She said she had hid hers "because a lot of boys were making fun of us whenever we were spotted wearing them."
Dlamini also voiced the view of many here that the king didn't set much of an example when he impregnated his ninth wife in 2001 when she was 17.
But there were hints of regret Tuesday.
"Wearing the tassels was good for us young girls because men were scared to touch and abuse us," said 16-year-old Bongiwe Nkampule. "Now that we had to take off the woolen tassels we will be vulnerable to abuse."
The director of National Emergency Response on HIV and AIDS, Derek Von Wissel, said new infection among teens had slowed, as had teenage pregnancies. But Von Wissel said this was due to vigorous prevention campaigns by nongovernment groups rather than the chastity order."