Associated Press (08.23.05) - Wednesday, August 24, 2005
On Tuesday, thousands of Swazi girls celebrated the premature
end of a royal ban on sexual relations for girls under age 18,
an ancient custom that was re-imposed in a bid to fight AIDS.
In 2001, King Mswati III reintroduced the "umchwasho" chastity
ritual for five years, during which girls wore tasseled
scarves symbolizing their chastity. If a man approached an
umchwasho girl for sex, the girl was expected to throw the
tassels at his home, obligating his family to forfeit a cow.
The decree was widely scorned as old-fashioned and too focused
on girls. Even the king flouted it, impregnating his ninth
wife when she was 17. The king lifted the ban one year early.
Swazi girls have now privately burned their scarves, which
experts said did little to slow AIDS in the nation, where up
to 40 percent of adults have HIV. The rate is 42.6 percent
among pregnant women.
"We are so happy that King Mswati ordered us to take off the
woolen tassels," said 18-year-old Nombulelo Dlamini. "They
were no use because some girls fell pregnant while wearing the
same tassels," said Dlamini, who added that she hid her
tassels "because a lot of boys were making fun of us whenever
we were spotted wearing them."
But the celebration was not universal. "Wearing the tassels
was good for us young girls because men were scared to touch
and abuse us," said 16-year-old Bongiwe Nkampule. "Now that we
had to take off the woolen tassels we will be vulnerable to
A recent decline in HIV and pregnancy rates among teens is due
to vigorous prevention campaigns and not the chastity order,
said Derek Von Wissel, director of the National Emergency
Response on HIV/AIDS.