Swaziland is at war.

Ask anybody and they’ll say the same thing:  in terms of Africa, Swaziland is extraordinary.  As war and conflicts persist and flourish across the continent, Swaziland has managed to escape this “African affliction” and remain a safe and peaceful country.  Or has it?

It is estimated that throughout Africa, one third of women are subjected to violence, sexual abuse or rape.  In Swaziland, the figure is double that, with two-thirds of women abused during their lifetime and one-third being abused during childhood.  Swaziland may not have a war fought on the streets, where journalists and humanitarians can take note and garner global compassion.  Swaziland’s war is a silent one, fought in secrecy behind the doors of hundreds of thousands of homesteads.

Last Monday was the International Day for the Elimination of the Violence, and the start of the 16 Days of Action Against Gender-Based Violence.  The Swazi campaign features public marches, a documentary film screening, extensive news and social media coverage.  Advocates are working hard to have the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Bill finally signed off, which will add to the Child Protection and Welfare Act approved earlier this year.  The groundswell for change is there.

Gone Rural boMake, with generous funding from the US Embassy in Swaziland, is also adding a piece to this puzzle.  One month ago we launched a program called “Safe Sisters”, aimed at improving women’s knowledge of their legal rights and increasing access to psychosocial support in rural areas.  Through a partnership with the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse, we have conducted workshops with our 700 artisans and other community members on this topic, and are working with the women to identify trusted, local support networks – not an easy task in rural areas.

The second phase of the project will go on to boost these local support services by partnering with The Moya Centre to train our active and passionate voluntary Peer Educators in the basics of crisis and grief counselling.  In many areas, they will be the ONLY support service accessible to survivors.  While Safe Sisters offers exciting possibilities for Swaziland’s women, it impossible not to be saddened by the necessity of it all.

As good as these combined on-the-ground efforts turn out to be, I have no doubt that the road ahead will be longer, more potholed and full of muddy bogs than we can possibly imagine.  With that in mind, I want to throw out a few challenges to people working in the sector that could help to make the road a little less bumpy.

1.  Be balanced.  While this applies to everyone – I am going to focus my point on journalists and the media.  I, like many, am constantly frustrated by the things we read in the paper or hear on the radio or television, not just because the stories tell an awful story, but because they often tell an awful story awfully.  Accurate reporting and protection of vulnerable individuals’ identities should all be standard practice so I’m not going to even argue that point (even though it doesn’t always happen).

My real concern comes with opinion pieces and, for the purposes of this article, the opinionated negative portrayals of women.  My innate sense of justice and human rights wants to see such close-minded, misogynistic, shockjocks banned from media communication and charged with inciting hatred.  Yet, after some lengthy and insightful conversations with the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) on the topic of free speech, I have turned a corner.

To the media, and everybody else, my challenge is this: provide your opinions, but provide them in balance.  Balance is not printing a rebuttal two days later in a lesser-read part of the paper, or airing an opponent on a different day in a different time slot.  Balance is putting them head-to-head, in the same room or on the same page, with the same exposure and space to respond.  This is what will get people thinking, discussing, and deciding in an informed and balanced way.

2.  Make a vision for rural scalability.  I know, I know, this sounds like an excerpt from yet another vague and meaningless development speech, so let me give it meaning.  Interventions and pilot projects start in urban areas.  I get it.  This enables easy monitoring by urban-based workers and takes advantage of population density.  However, if it works, why does it stop there?

In Swaziland, almost 80% of the population live in rural areas.  When it comes to the issue of gender-based violence, I argue that those in rural areas of the country have a greater need.  They tend to be less educated, poorer, more financially dependent on others, and more likely to uphold “traditions” that facilitate abuse, such as women’s subservience to men and the notion of “tibi thendlu” (keeping it in the home).  At the same time, I argue that those in small, rural communities of the country have the least access to proximal, quality, confidential services required to meet their needs.  In summary, people in rural areas suffer the double whammy of greater need and less access to quality support.

My challenge to programmers is this:  By ignoring rural people you are ignoring the majority of your population, making it impossible to achieve any form of national change.  Start urban if you must, but before you even begin your pilot, have a long-term plan of how you will scale this to reach rural areas if the pilot is successful.  Then, when it is successful, make sure you take it to rural areas.

3.  Empower.  In almost all cases, the word “empower” is followed by the word “women”.  Working for a women’s empowerment organisation, I have seen and heard firsthand what can be achieved through the economic independence of women.  I have seen women gain the confidence and independence to be able to say “No” to abuse, whether it’s from their husbands, in-laws, or neighbours.  It is inspiring.

What I have also seen, however, and what research has shown throughout the world, is that the empowerment of women can also tip the balance of traditional gender roles into the realm of disempowerment of men.  Disempowered men, in an attempt to regain power, may then be more inclined to become abusive.  Before you know it, you have more empowered women and more abuse.   A sobering, catch-22 thought.

My challenge to everybody is this:  If we are truly honest about achieving gender equality, then let’s empower both genders, equally.  Empowerment of women doesn’t just mean economic independence.  Empowerment of men doesn’t just mean reverting to traditional gender roles.  Empowerment, according to Oxford dictionary, means “make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights”.  Shouldn’t that be something we want for everybody, equally?

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