MBABANE, Swaziland (AP) - At dawn Monday, thousands of Swazi girls removed tasseled scarves symbolizing
their chastity, abandoning an ancient rite that had been revived to combat the
modern scourge of AIDS.
King Mswati III, Africa's last absolute monarch, reinstated the "umchwasho"
rite for five years in 2001, banning sexual relations for girls younger than
18. But the move was ridiculed as old-fashioned and unfairly focused on girls
- and the king himself was accused of ignoring it.
With criticism mounting, Mswati decided to end the ban a year early.
The girls arrived at the queen mother's residence at Ludzidzini singing:
"Saphose safa ngumchwasho" - loosely translated as: "We were sick and tired of
They dropped the tassels in a heap, which state radio said would be burned at
a public celebration Tuesday marking the official end of the chastity rite.
They then bathed in a river in a ritual intended to purge the bad omens
associated with wearing the tassels, the radio station reported.
Mswati and his mother, Ntombi Thwala, are expected to attend the festivities
Tuesday, which will be marked by dancing and the slaughtering of cows in honor
of the girls, some of whom kept their chastity vow for four years.
The abandonment of the rite comes days before the annual reed dance ceremony
at which Mswati traditionally picks a new bride from thousands of young girls
who appear before him dressed in little more than beads and traditional
Nkonto Dlamini, head of a traditional regiment made of unmarried girls, said
Mswati is expected to send them to gather the reeds used to build wind
breakers for the queen mother's compound Wednesday. When they return, there
will be dancing on Sunday and Monday, which has been declared a public holiday
Over 20,000 Swazi girls have registered to take part in the reed dance, with
more expected to come from the Zulu kingdom in neighboring South Africa.
At 36, Mswati already has 12 wives, one bride-to-be and 27 children. His late
father, King Sobhuza II, who led the country to independence from Britain in
1968, had more than 70 wives.
AIDS has hit Swaziland harder than almost any country in the world, with
roughly 480,000 people in this nation of over a 1 million estimated to be
infected by HIV.
During the five-year ban, Swazi girls were instructed to wear a tasseled scarf
as a symbolic badge of virginity. If an umchwasho girl was approached for sex
by a man, she was expected to throw her tassels at his homestead, obliging his
family to pay a cow.
When Mswati chose a 17-year-old as his ninth wife in 2001, about 300 young
women marched to a royal residence, laying down their tassels in protest.
His aides argued the ban was designed to discourage casual relationships, not
marriage. But Mswati surrendered the cow, which was roasted and eaten by the