For much of my life, International Women’s Day has been an honourable but distant commemoration. The UN established the day in 1975 to promote women’s rights globally, but from my comfortable Canadian vantage point the problems facing women in the rest of world lacked the substance of reality.
I had it good. I went to university, become a journalist, made a decent wage and enjoyed the freedom to marry who and when I wanted. To be honest, I never really questioned my rights or freedoms.
In 2013 I spent a year in Swaziland as a volunteer with Canadian NGO Crossroads International and my eyes were opened. I was working as a communications officer with the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA), an organization that provides care and support to survivors of gender-based violence. SWAGAA also leads educational prevention programs, provides legal access services and advocates for legislative change. In Swaziland, one in three girls have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18. In this tiny southeast Africa kingdom of 1.1 million people, there were almost 5,000 cases of abuse reported last year. The numbers are actually much higher, since only one in seven cases is reported.
There are other challenges. Until 2006, Swazi women had the legal status of minors, preventing them from owning property or even opening a bank account without permission from a male relative. Patriarchal laws and customs continue to make it difficult for females to access education and the economy. Polygamy and forced, intergenerational marriages are common. Teenage pregnancy is rampant and young mothers are often impoverished with little access to healthcare and schooling.
Swaziland also has the highest rate of HIV in the world. Women learn their status when they give birth and if positive, angry husbands turf them out of the house, blaming them for the infection and refusing to be tested themselves. Multiple partner relationships are common, and women who make very low wages are susceptible to sugar daddies who pay for groceries and transportation. Condoms are perceived as unmanly.
Change Can Happen
But I have confidence things will change. SWAGAA is helping to build the confidence and capacity of young girls through its Girls Empowerment Clubs. The clubs, with more than 1,000 members (and growing), offer a safe place where girls learn about HIV and its prevention, as well as what to do if they’ve been abused. They share songs and poems, ambitions and dreams. In operation since 2008, the clubs have had excellent results. Teenage pregnancies at these schools have dropped by half, grades have drastically improved, and girls have been coming forward in greater numbers to report abuse. The clubs represent an accessible program where small victories can equate to big changes.
In 2012 the Children’s Protection and Welfare Act became law, making it illegal to abduct underage girls for marriage. A year later the Sexual Offenses and Domestic Violence Act also became law. Although magistrates have been frustrated by a lack of resources and infrastructure to uphold the new rulings, both laws will eventually make it easier to punish perpetrators adequately.
There is much work to be done worldwide to protect women. International Women’s Day reminds us how important it is to push for universal gender equality. This can be done by volunteering, donating resources, lobbying politicians and staying connected with the issues. The commitment doesn’t need to be monumental; it just requires that first baby step.