Swaziland’s annual reed dance, during which semi-naked virgins dance before King Mswati III, has once again courted the ire of gender activists, who said it was unfortunate that the ritual was a significant contributor to the portrayal and perception of women as sexual objects.
The annual traditional festival is celebrated in August, which, in Swazi custom, is women’s month.
This year, the celebrations were attended by foreign heads of state, including President Robert Mugabe.
President Mugabe said witnessing the eight-day ceremony as a “privilege” and urged Swazis not to abandon it.
“Umhlanga is a beautiful occasion that grooms women of tomorrow,” he said, adding that no other country had such a beautiful culture.
King Mswati III said the festival was made to coincide with 14th Comesa Heads of State and Government Summit in order to allow delegates to have first-hand experience of the cultural delights of Swaziland within the scope of striking a balance between modernity and traditions.
Although Zanele Dube (24), who flashed a gleaming smile as she led 30 girls in a rhythmic song and a hip-swaying dance, described the dance as a cultural celebration during which girls were encouraged to take care of themselves, the situation on the ground did not always reflect that.
Over the past few years, there have been cases where virgins have been raped by HIV positive men in the mistaken belief that they carried the cure for HIV.
A counsellor with a local children’s organisation which works towards rehabilitating abused children, said it was disheartening that heads of state – who were better positioned to spearhead perception change in society – would gather to “feast on naked young women under the ruse of upholding culture”.
She said it was ironic that the “so-called cultural celebration” was, in fact, a culture of abuse.
“Women’s virginity has always been a favourite topic among patriarchal societies, and the fact there is so much obsession about women’s sexuality is in itself an indication that something is wrong because societies are made up of men and women,” she said.
She said she had dealt with several cases in which young girls were raped and infected with HIV by men who had been advised by traditional healers to sleep with a virgin in order to be “cured”.
A Harare-based social worker, Robert Mhishi, said young women also needed to be disabused of cultural notions that demanded that they parade semi-naked before men.
The young woman who led the reed dance in was quoted saying: “This is our big day, the Reed Dance.
This is a celebration of our culture and we are very proud. We girls are encouraged to take care of ourselves. We are encouraged to stay girls and not to let others pressure us into sex.”
Mhishi said the best way young women could take care of themselves was through socio-economic empowerment which would ensure that they would not be sorely dependent on men for their survival.
Critics say the ceremony has degenerated into nothing more than a beauty pageant, and does little to address the status of women in a country with the world’s highest rate of HIV infection.
“The Reed Dance has been abused for one man’s personal satisfaction,” Mario Masuku, the leader of a banned opposition party, recently told Reuters. “The king has a passion for young women and opulence.”
King Mswati III as an absolute monarch of a country where women have few legal rights, cannot be turned down by any woman.
Women are minors under the law, and cannot have bank accounts or sign binding legal contracts, so the opportunity to become a royal wife with one’s own palace and BMW is attractive to many.
The country is stuck in poverty with 66% of the 1,1 million population living on less than a dollar a day.
Recently, unaccountably, the king decreed the end of the umchwasho, a ban on sex with teenage girls, after he had been caught in the wrong.
The mass event also highlights how Swaziland is struggling to cope with Aids. Nearly 40% of Swaziland’s adults are infected with HIV, according the Uited Nations.
In the eight-day ceremony, girls cut reeds and present them to the queen mother and then dance and only childless, unmarried girls can take part.