'Airing dirty linen': the problems of establishing a women's rights organisation in contemporary Swaziland

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This dissertation is about the power of tradition to influence domestic behavioural norms in Swaziland. I set out to demonstrate that, although the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA) has rendered itself indispensable to Swazi women, it still has a long way to go before realising its goal of the empowerment of abused women. This is due, primarily, to the organisation's adherence to international standards of women's human rights which cannot readily be applied in the particular context of Swaziland because they are resisted by those who seek to preserve what is claimed to be the traditional order. SWAGAA's counselling service is based on the premise that if an abused woman can be encouraged to make an informed, independent decision then she will have been empowered to take control of her life, and, ultimately, to free herself of the abuse. I argue that this approach, despite good intentions, is highly unrealistic in the locality of Swaziland. When a woman attempts to confront gender andlor domestic violence using the empowerment approach advocated by SWAGAA, she comes up against a number of entrenched ideological and practical constraints that undermine her power to negotiate. Foremost amongst these is the strong negative responses to any practice of 'airing dirty linen in public', such as consulting SWAGAA, for which a woman may be severely chastised. Women are reprimanded for seeking counsel beyond what are regarded as family boundaries because, they are told, by the police and by those around them, that this is inconsistent with acceptable and normative 'traditional' practice. I argue that the pressure placed upon women to adhere to practices of social organisation which are upheld as traditional, is rooted in a legacy of mistrust of foreign ideologies and practices. The leadership of the country has been, and continues to be engaged in an ongoing struggle to retain some semblance of what it regards as the traditional order. SWAGAA comes up directly against this legacy. Firstly, the women whom they counsel are constrained from making the individualistic decisions that SWAGAA wishes them to make. Secondly, women themselves are so embroiled in a social situation where men act as their advocates that they do not easily relate to the idea of individual empowerment. Yet SWAGAA persists with an approach that tries to undermine everyday normative practices, rather than working within the parameters of those norms. Its radical approach renders SWAGAA's counselling service too ambitious in Swaziland. What I thus advocate is an incremental approach that aims, gradually, to encourage women to empower themselves, given the persistence of the ideological and practical resistance to those attempts.

Bibliography: leaves 80-84.