SWAZILAND: Are there any good men?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

'Are there any good Swazi men?' is the catchphrase of a competition to draw men into discussing gender-based violence in the kingdom's patriarchal society.

With Father's Day on Sunday 17 June in mind, the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA), a non-governmental organisation, is using the competition as a publicity gimmick for a Men's Involvement Programme, co-sponsored by the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare.

"The programme is an attempt to get men to participate in discussion about gender-based violence," Nonhlanhla Dlamini, Director of SWAGAA, told IRIN. "We are going out into the communities to engage men in discussions, to hear their opinions on why there is so much gender-based violence and come up with solutions as to what is to be done with this problem."

Swazi men are being nominated for the competition by their partners and children, and a jury will sift through nominations.

"We are getting questions from people asking, 'Do you think there are good men left today?' And we are saying, 'men have acquired a bad reputation because of all the stories of abuse that are in the newspapers every day'," said Dlamini.

"But, clearly, a vast majority of men do not engage in abusive behaviour; they abhor such behaviour, they honour and wish to protect their female loved ones. So, we seek to cast a light on them."

Catalyst for debate

But what constitutes a "good man"? According to Dlamini, "The criteria are that the man is someone who is not abusive or violent; he is someone who, when it comes to making decisions, consults with his partner and family ... He is not involved in extramarital affairs. He is someone who is conscious about HIV and AIDS, and is someone who is even taking it upon himself to protect his family against AIDS."
As a catalyst for discussion, a theatre troupe performs a play depicting gender-based violence in several forms, from physical and psychological abuse to rape.

"The play asks questions which spark the debate: 'What could be done by a character in a situation? How do you feel about the people in the drama?' This way, we learn what the men's perceptions are about abuse," said Dlamini.

The debates often lead to men calling for harsher sentences for rape, spousal abuse and incest. "Many people actually want to revive capital punishment ... in sentencing. People are saying, '100 years imprisonment!'" said Dlamini.

Dorothy Dube, who counsels abuse victims at the SWAGAA headquarters in the commercial town of Manzini, 35km east of the capital, Mbabane, said, "In the old days, if someone did something to a child, the community would go out hunting for the person, and he'd never come back. There is still some vigilantism today, but people are beginning to trust the courts more."

Swaziland has a tradition of holding community meetings, attended only by men, which serve as forum for reporting crimes.

At one such community meeting in Sigombeni, a rural settlement half an hour's drive over pitted dirt roads north of Manzini, an elderly man received nods of acknowledgement from his peers when he complained of the attitude of the younger generation of Swazi men.


"These taxi drivers in town, they think they can accost a girl who is wearing a mini-skirt; they can rape her," said the man. "They say they are provoked as men by the girls' attire; that the girls are asking for it and they have a right to take what is being offered. This is very un-Swazi," he told the group of men seated on the ground around him.
The greybeard, his shiny bald head encircled by a black rubber head ring reserved for revered elders, recalled, "When we were young, we used to swim naked with girls. We bathed with them. The girls would be topless, and they wore very little below. We would not think of touching them, or raping them! What is wrong with the young men today?"

According to SWAGAA director Dlamini, "All over, at our meetings, we have huge debates about losing our traditions and customs, and needing to return to a time when people had respect for each other. We can't go back to what was happening a hundred years ago, but modernisation has been identified at the community meetings as a contributor to gender abuse - not the fashions of today, but the lack of respect for people."

Uncensored satellite television and racy shows on state-run Swazi TV are condemned at the men's meetings. "Children are learning about sex so early in life, and they receive the message that this is a good thing to do," said one participant at Sigombeni.

Dlamini said the complaint was common. "On TV, sex is shown unrelated to marriage or a commitment to another person. It's shown as a fashion. This puts pressure on young girls to give in to boys to be fashionable, and it makes boys think it is their right to do what they want. A lot of abuse comes out of this."

The centuries-old tradition of watching over the community's children had also died out, Dlamini said. "If you saw any child misbehaving you could discipline that child, and the parents would thank you. But now you cannot say or do anything if it is not your child, and it is causing problems because some parents are absent."


Source: IRIN