5 November 2012

Swaziland - The HIV and Gender Based Violence Nexus

Mbabane — "I would calm her down whenever we had an argument by telling her that she is my wife and the other women are just one-night stands."

This is the response a man provided journalists after his wife killed herself and their three children when she discovered he had once again cheated on her.

The 24-year-old woman committed the act because she saw this as the only way out of a marriage with a constantly unfaithful husband.

Thousands of women suffer similar emotional abuse every day. Others endure sexual abuse, economic abuse and many are physically abused.

A sampling of headlines published in Swazi dailies tell a sad story. "Hubby kills wife after man bolts from his house at night"; "Makhwapheni, wife in fist fight over high school principal"; "Womanising town board chairman preys on school girls"; and "Wife hammers abusive husband on Valentine's Day."

Thembekile Mabuza* remembers vividly each time her husband beats her and how she is tempted to take her own life. Christmas Eve of 2010 is clearly etched in her mind - it's the day she tested positive for HIV and the day her husband physically abused her for the first time.

Mabuza has been married for six years and has a four-year-old daughter, Ntandoyenkosi*. Her husband Mandla* wants to have more children but she is not ready to have another child. Mandla wants a son, but he is not really the kind of father who has time for children. He has multiple concurrent partnerships.

Mabuza decided to get tested after attending a workshop on HIV and AIDS. Although she had been tested before she fell pregnant, she thought it wise to get tested again. When she broached the subject with her husband, he would not listen. "I am healthy and do not need to know my status," he said. She decided to do it alone because she suspected Mandla did not use condoms in his extramarital affairs.

"I remember the day I went to the voluntary counselling and testing centre," says Mabuza. "The friendly counsellor counselled me and prepared me for the results. I tested HIV positive. How would I break the news to my husband and what would he say? I would cope but it would come at a price. My husband would also not believe me."

She told her husband, who then beat her until she lost consciousness. She awoke hours later so badly hurt that she had to be rushed to hospital. Similar incidents followed to this day - sometimes she is beaten so violently she is forced to wear excess make-up to conceal the bruises.

Despite her family's advice, she continues to stay with Mandla. She says she loves him and she continues to make excuses for his behaviour while praying and hoping that someday he will see the folly of his ways.

Mabuza's journey is just one of thousands of similar stories. Many women go through the same torture when they disclose their HIV-positive status to their partner. This violence is so rife that some women have decided that disclosing their status is not worth the risk.

As illustrated by Mabuza's case, many women cannot insist on fidelity, demand condom use, or refuse to have sex with their partner, even when they suspect or know he is HIV positive.

As the headlines above underscore, multiple concurrent sexual partnerships are on the rise. Married men and women continue to engage in sexual relationships with other people, placing not only their marriages at risk, but also their lives.

Many women continue to stay in such relationships even when they understand how toxic they are. Some claim they want to give their children a stable foundation. But how stable is such an environment?

Various organisations continue to lend a hand to women in these types of situations, offering counselling for both parties, but there seems to be no end in sight to the scourge of violence in our society. As the problems of HIV and gender-based violence increase in Swaziland, the time to talk about these problems is over. It is now time to take drastic measures to save lives, in particular women.

*Not their real names.

Bongiwe Zwane is a writer and public relations practitioner based in Swaziland. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.

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