Eswatini

Swaziland: Homage paid to Women's Relief Committees

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SIPHOFANENI, 7 March (IRIN) - International Women's Day was celebrated in the dusty hamlet of Siphofaneni in the heart of Swaziland's drought belt when over 2,000 women, who have saved countless lives by managing food relief distributions, were paid homage for their efforts.
But the day was marked by a new mission that was communicated to the women. So effective have they been at the community level during the food crisis, they have been pressed into service on two new fronts: HIV/AIDS prevention and efforts to contain child abuse.

"This is a celebration of Swazi womanhood, and these heroines have performed splendidly in a national emergency," Erika MacLean, emergency coordinator for the World Food Programme, told IRIN.

With the permission of area chiefs and with the cooperation of village elders, MacLean set up 179 Women's Relief Committees to handle food distribution at each of the kingdom's relief distribution centres. The survival of at least 287,000 Swazis - one-third of the population - has depended on this aid, following poor harvests last year, which will probably be repeated this season, early warning indicators suggest.

"There has been no starvation. We have not had famine. The work of the Women's Relief Committees has been stupendous," Ben Nsibandze, director of the National Disaster Relief Task Force, told IRIN.

Nsibandze paid tribute to the thousands of women gathered on Friday at a mid-day feast on the semi-arid plain beneath the flat Lubombo mountain to thank them for their work. MacLean said that corruption and mismanagement that had hindered earlier relief efforts was erased by the women's dedication.

In a nation where women have only minority status, the novelty of women heading community efforts during a national crisis will be noted by the most die-hard traditionalists, said Sipofaneni resident, Abel Dhlamini.

"The chiefs said it was right to put women in charge of managing the food, and I can say that in our area no one who was in need was overlooked," Dhlamini explained.

MacLean founded the women's committees in the belief that "women get together, and they know everything that goes on in the households of their neighbours. We told the chiefs it makes sense to tap into their knowledge. They know whose pot is empty. The chiefs agreed."

Such a network of community intelligence gatherers is too valuable to be permitted to dissipate once the current food crisis concludes, developmental NGOs feel. While the Swazi women were being feted on Friday, they were also handed a new mission.

"Child abuse is closely linked with the spread of HIV/AIDS, because of the incidents of incest and child rape, and we cannot separate one issue from the other," Alan Brody, national representative of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) told IRIN.

Brody brought a local theatrical troupe to the women's celebration to perform a stage version of an allegorical play that uses animal characters to present a child abuse message. The skilful actors elicited laughter from the women as they duplicated a typical Swazi homestead, only one populated by rock rabbits, and cries of outrage as sexual abuse leads to tragedy.

This was followed by a discussion, and the presentation of a "string game" that used coloured yarn to trace the interconnectivity of HIV transmission through a community that does not take protective measures.

It was some of the women's first instruction in the AIDS message. They would take the knowledge gained back to their communities.

"The Women's Relief Committees have been invaluable in seeing that under-five children, who are the most vulnerable group, received food assistance. The committees will now look out for children in their communities who may suffer from child abuse or who are at risk," said MacLean.

Just as the women used their knowledge of their neighbours' needs to focus food distribution on those requiring assistance, so will they now establish a "data base" for child welfare agencies.

"We do not wish to remove children from their communities, where they have their roots and their friends, but only from abusive situations," said Brody.

The women's committees will be instructed on the signs that a child may be abused. They will also be made aware of children's right to a safe place to live, medical attention and sufficient nourishment.

"It is likely that as the women better understand children's rights, they will come to know their own rights," lawyer Fikile Mthembu said.

As legal minors, Swazi women cannot own property or enter into contracts without the consent of a male relative. Their activities are restricted during lengthy mourning periods when their husbands die, and inheritance customs can make them and their children paupers when spousal estates go to the husband's family.

"When it comes to a patriarchal culture, the way attitudes will change toward women is through women's performance. We really are the capable ones," said MacLean.

[ENDS]

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