Swaziland’s Traditions, Odd Proposals Hinder HIV/AIDS Prevention Efforts
The "staggering" spread of HIV in Swaziland mirrors the epidemics facing Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa; however, compared to these countries, "Swaziland has yet to fully appreciate the problem," the Baltimore Sun reports. Among a population of just under one million, about 22% are HIV-positive, including about 40% of pregnant women. Although the government of southern Africa's only remaining kingdom has finally "awakened to the problem" in the past two years, with King Mswati III in 1999 declaring HIV/AIDS a "national disaster," lawmakers have recently proposed some "peculiar" resolutions intended to curb the spread of AIDS: branding HIV-positive citizens, locking them away in concentration camps, mandating sterilization and enforcing a ban on miniskirts in schools. The miniskirt ban was the only proposal to become law, but AIDS activists say that the odd proposals are "a sign of desperation ... as this tradition-minded country ruled by a monarch comes to terms with an epidemic clouded in mystery, misunderstanding and shame." HIV-positive Swaziland citizen Vusi Matsebula said, "The number of deaths is rising. I think the government is in shock, in a panic." Christabel Motsa, chairwoman of the government's "newly formed" crisis committee on disease, fears the proposals will compromise her group's efforts, saying, "It is hurting our cause a great deal. It has been embarrassing for His Majesty, who has been going for support. It has retarded our programs. It has been very negative and something that we really didn't need." The crisis committee on AIDS will soon roll out a five-year plan to deal with the AIDS epidemic in Swaziland. "People in this country are very much afraid to talk about AIDS or to accept that relatives -- mothers, fathers, sons and daughters -- are dying from AIDS. This kind of denial caused a slow response to the disease. Why people are in denial I don't think is clear to anyone," Motsa said. The Sun reports that each week, "dozens of families bury their loved ones without acknowledging what struck them down." This denial is evident in the pages of the national newspaper, Swazi News -- filled with the obituaries of 20- to 30-year-olds, the noticesfail to cite the cause of death other than "a long illness." Health officials attribute the rapid spread of HIV in Swaziland to the country's "ties to tradition." Traditional healing is a deep-rooted faith, and Motsa said that citizens "believe so much in traditional healing that whether you are educated or not, when you are sick the first stop is the traditional healer, not the clinic or the hospital," with the sick often not seeking medical help until HIV has progressed significantly. King Mswati III has perpetuated the risky tradition of polygamy by having seven wives. The Sun reports that many men in rural areas follow Mswati's example by having multiple partners, leading to the spread of HIV. Motsa laments that traditional leaders "have been responsible for furthering misunderstanding of the epidemic," but she hopes these leaders will carry the torch for her committee's five-year plan on AIDS prevention and education. However, Motsa said, "Deep down, 70% of the population doesn't quite understand what is going on. The parliament mirrors society," adding that if the Swazi chiefs can be educated about HIV/AIDS, then the "people will follow" (Murphy, Baltimore Sun, 11/4).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.