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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


King's Polygamy Remarks Condemned


King Mswati III has once more become embroiled in controversy, this time over statements he made that the custom of polygamy did not contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS, contradicting studies that have established a connection.

"HIV/AIDS is promoted by an individual in the manner he or she goes about with his or her life. Otherwise, polygamy is not a factor," Mswati said in an interview on a local television station this week.

The king, who turns 35 next month on a day that will be observed as a national holiday, began marrying at aged 18. He currently has nine wives, and two fiancées. His father, King Sobhuza, married at least 120 wives, according to an official biography.

"So long as people stick to their HIV-negative partners, there is no risk of HIV and AIDS," Mswati said.


The king's comments drew heated responses from health NGOs and women's empowerment groups. His remarks were criticised for being naïve and self-serving.

"Every study on the spread of HIV has implicated multiple sexual partners as being a primary cause of new infections," said Thobile Dlamini, director of the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA).

"The king should recognise the reality of AIDS, and urge people to change their behaviour," Faith Motsa, chairperson of the SWAGAA board of directors, told IRIN. "AIDS has [spread] too far. As long as you have multiple partners, you are at risk. Nearly 40 percent of Swazis are HIV-positive," Motsa added.

Health workers feel that it is no longer possible to have a safe polygamous relationship without a thorough vetting of a sexual partner.

"The king's people subject each new prospective wife to tests. But a majority of Swazis shun blood tests because they are frightened they might prove HIV-positive. It is all well and good for the king to tell people to stick to partners who are HIV-negative, but the truth is few people know [their partners status]," said nurse Agnes Kunene in the central town of Manzini.

A Western diplomat stationed in Mbabane told IRIN: "The king was speaking from a 19th century perspective, before AIDS. It is understood that he must defend Swazi cultural practices, but times have changed."

Among the reports linking polygamy to the rapid rise in HIV infections in Swaziland was a study released last October by the UN Development Programme (UNDP). The report found that widespread cultural practices such as polygamy contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The UNDP study, titled 'Gender Focused Responses to HIV/AIDS in Swaziland', noted that "Swazi society expects women to be subordinate and submissive; allows men to have multiple sexual partners, and polygamy, which exposes women to HIV infection, is legal in the country".

Traditional authorities were angered by the report and royal counsellors said the report's findings were an insult to Swazis.

Polygamy as a formal institution is practiced less frequently in Swaziland, due to the expense a man incurs paying a cattle dowry called lobola to his fiancé's family.

"Men still feel they are entitled to multiple wives, only they are girlfriends today who do not even have the protection of legal spousal status," an Mbabane businesswoman told IRIN. "The king should be telling the men of this country - his warriors - to cut down on girlfriends, because this is spreading AIDS. What is needed is not a defence of a destructive cultural practice, but a change in behaviour."


Mswati made his remarks prior to departing for Indonesia this week, and political analysts in the Swazi press suggested he was presenting his defence of polygamy in anticipation of questions about the custom he regularly receives while on overseas trips, especially as Swaziland's HIV infection rate is one of the world's highest.

The king also defended other cultural practices that were found to spread HIV. One was the reintroduction of chastity rules for Swazi maidens, called "umcwasho".

"The umcwasho custom is old, and it has been there ever since the Swazi nation was established, but this time we have introduced it as a means of preventing the youth from being sexually active," he said.

Swazis interviewed by the UNDP study had a different view of the custom. They said the annual Reed Dance, which is attended by 30,000 maidens, was used as an opportunity to escape parental supervision and engage in sexual affairs.

"The king must recognise the reality of what is actually going on, and he must set an example, and urge people to change their behaviour," said Motsa.

So serious is the AIDS problem that last month in his speech to open parliament, Mswati worried that AIDS might eventually overwhelm the Swazi nation.

"The king has the role of defender of Swazi customs, and we respect that," said nurse Kunene. "But it is not business as usual any more. Customs that are life threatening must be reformed, or dropped."