Evidence is growing in Swaziland that traditionalists do not support a constitutional change to ensure 30 percent of members of the House of Assembly are women.
It has taken 10 years for a Bill to reach parliament and on Monday (21 May 2018) debate on it was halted because some members left the house leaving fewer than the necessary quorum of 30 in place.
During the debate on the Election of Women Members to the House of Assembly Bill, Mbabane West Member of Parliament (MP) Johane Shongwe said that wives should not stand for election unless they had the permission of their husbands. His comments were reported prominently by both of Swaziland's daily newspapers.
The Times of Swaziland, reported he 'had some of his colleagues in stitches while others were seething with anger'.
The Times reported, 'In his usual funny tone', Shongwe said he was in favour of passing the Bill but had an issue with the fact that some of the women who would be nominated would be people's wives.
It added, he queried, 'If I nominate someone's wife, who will I say gave me the permission?'
The Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by King Mswati III, who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, reported Shongwe saying, 'It is difficult for women to nominate one another in chiefdoms. Therefore, it is advisable for them to get permission from their husbands. I was nominated by a woman to be where I am right now, to show that most women would rather nominate a man than another woman.'
The Observer reported, 'The legislator further said women MPs would sometimes attend workshops at places far away from their homes. This would mean they would have to go for days without sleeping next to their husbands at home. MP Shongwe said this could pose a problem for the husband, especially if his permission was not sought by the wife before taking the politics path.'
Later, Silindelo Nkosi, Advocacy Officer, for the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA), said, 'This is clear backward thinking. While the rest of the world is advocating and promoting gender equality, it is rather worrying to have a prominent public figure making such an irresponsible statement with no shame.'
In Swaziland, political parties are not allowed to run for election. The King chooses 10 of the 65 members of the House of Assembly and 10 members of the 30-strong Senate. Members of the House of Assembly choose the other 20.
The Constitution that came into effect in 2006 requires five women to be elected to the Senate by the House and the King to choose another eight. There have been two national elections since the Constitution came into effect and the required number of women members of parliament has not been met.
On representation in the House of Assembly, the Constitution states, 'The nominated members of the House shall be appointed by the King so that at least half of them are women.'
It also requires there are four female members specially elected from the four regions of Swaziland.
The Election of Women Members to the House of Assembly Bill will put into legal force the constructional requirements. It was tabled in the House of Assembly in April 2018 on the instruction of the King. It is hoped that it would become law before the next national election due later in 2018.
There has been opposition to the change across the kingdom. In the past year, the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) ran a series of voter-education workshops and conferences.
Chiefs at a capacity building conference in Siteki in February 2017 spoke against encouraging the electorate to vote for women for gender-balance reasons, the Swazi Observer reported at the time. 'The traditional leaders said this may be equal to interfering with the people's choices or rather channelling them into voting against their will but adhere to an order.'
It added, Chief Mdlaka Gamedze raised the issue and he said the call by many organisations to vote for women might lead to interference with the people's choices.
'Instead, Gamedze urged the EBC team to encourage the freedom to nominate or elect any member of the society without considering whether it is a male or female,' the Observer reported.
'Meanwhile, Chief Mvimbi Matse reported that some women were denied the opportunity to contest for the elections by their husbands. Matse said there have been instances where women were nominated during the first stage but later withdrew after their husbands instructed them to do so. However, Matse said they would now work closely with the EBC to make sure that such incidents are not repeated in the future,' the newspaper reported.
At a voter education workshop at KaGucuka in June 2017, One women, reported by the Swazi Observer at the time, said most women of the area feared being nominated for the elections because they would be questioned and even disowned by their husbands.
It reported a woman who did not want to be named saying, 'To be very honest, the reason why this small area has never had a female nominee for elections is because we fear our husbands who will question us on how we got nominated to stand for the elections in the first place. We have heard that a successful nominee requires at least 10 people to nominate them to stand for the elections, unfortunately for us women our husbands will get angry at us when we get nominated.'
Women remain oppressed in Swaziland, according to report published in 2016 by ACTSA (Action for Southern Africa). It reported that despite claims that Swaziland was a modern country, 'the reality is, despite pledges and commitments, women continue to suffer discrimination, are treated as inferior to men, and are denied rights'.
In a briefing paper called Women's Rights in Swaziland ACTSA reported, 'Cultural gender norms dictate that women and girls provide the bulk of household-related work, including physical and emotional care. As a result, girls are under pressure to drop out from school, especially where there are few adults available to care for children and the elderly, for example, in child-headed households.'
Despite the misgivings of traditionalists, the Bill will certainly be passed because King Mswati has instructed it. Barnabas Dlamini, the Swazi Prime Minister, is on record saying government belonged to His Majesty and it took instructions from him to implement them to the letter, without questioning them. In 2012 the Times Sunday newspaper reported him saying, 'Government listens when His Majesty speaks and we will always implement the wishes of the King and the Queen Mother.'
The PM said Cabinet's position on the matter was that it respected His Majesty's position on all matters he spoke about. He said Cabinet just like the nation, heard what the King said and his wishes would be implemented.