King's Polygamy Remarks Condemned
Integrated Regional Information Networks
March 19, 2003
Posted to the web March 19, 2003
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
"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,"
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
"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
"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
"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
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."