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With Women Powerless, AIDS Reigns

Times Staff Writer

That warm September morning, the whole world seemed to be singing her name. She wore her favorite thing, the new denim miniskirt, and when she stood in front of the mirror, she had the delightful feeling of knowing that she looked beautiful.

As Portia walked along the street, she saw the beaming smiles of the local boys and heard their calls that they loved her. She took a minibus to Manzini, the biggest Swazi town, on her way to a wedding.

A threadbare Mozambiquan vendor named Bud Madolo watched the 19-year-old in the miniskirt as she passed among vendors, women with huge bundles on their heads and screaming conductors touting their fares at the Manzini bus station. Four young conductors followed close behind, pulling at her and making lewd propositions.

Frightened, she rapped on the closed bus doors, but the driver just shook his head. Instead of singing her name, the air was now rent by shrill whistles, calling the pack to its prey. Dozens of conductors ran excitedly to see.

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“They were shouting and complaining at how I was dressed,” said Portia, who asked that her full name not be used. “They started to pull off my clothes. People were watching. Some were standing on the top of [minibuses]. My skirt tore. My fishnets were shredded. And the front of my panties was torn.”

The crowd of conductors raped her with the brooms they used to sweep out buses, a twisted message that they were cleaning up the area.

Portia said she was suicidal for many weeks after the attack. Whenever she went out, men and women hissed names at her. She is trying to be strong.

“Now I’m getting better,” she said softly. “I almost died there.”

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Swaziland, a country of 1.1 million people tucked along the northeastern border of South Africa, has an HIV infection rate of about 39%, the world’s highest. Experts cite rape, sexual predation, legal exploitation and a deeply patriarchal society.

It is almost impossible here for a woman to legally grow up. She goes from being her father’s child to her husband’s child. If he dies of AIDS, she becomes his parents’ child, and as a minor she is not seen as the guardian of her own children. She cannot sue or own property and is rarely granted a court hearing. Swaziland’s ancient customary law forms a confusing second arm to the legal system, and a woman needs a man to access those structures.

UNICEF representative Alan Brody spent the last five years in Swaziland trying to figure out why the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, spread so quickly. He concluded that a major reason was men’s dominance of women and their use of laws, religions and customs to justify it.

“Today I fear that men continue to miss the point and to misunderstand the source of the AIDS virus,” Brody said in a recent speech. “Now bus conductors want to constitute themselves as the chiefs of the nation’s public spaces and to command women on what they can and cannot wear. They want to blame their own weaknesses and failures of self-control on women.”

In Swaziland, 67% of the people live in poverty and 80% are farmers living traditional lives. Swaziland Action Against Abuse, a nongovernmental group, fielded 3,540 abuse reports last year. About 250 of those involved sexual abuse, including that of a 2-year-old girl. Officials believe that many more cases went unreported, especially in rural areas.

The group’s deputy director, Mandla Luphondvo, said male attitudes played a key role, more so in the most traditional rural settings.

“Some people think it is nicer if they engage their wife in sex while she is crying,” Luphondvo said. In a culture that does not recognize marital rape, some men have assaulted their wives to enhance their own pleasure, he said, adding that the practice was uncommon in urban areas.

“If you are a man, you have to be strong, and that is often perceived as being able to [have sex with] any woman who crosses your path regardless of whether it’s your wife. If you are too nice to your wife in some sections of Swazi society, it is perceived that you are not a strong man.”

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Other practices that could increase the spread of HIV include polygamy and brothers inheriting their siblings’ widows as wives, Luphondvo said.

Lomcebo Dlamini, of the group Women in Law, said some women have won redress in modern courts only to have the decision rejected by traditional bodies. The clash between traditional and modern law is unlikely to be resolved by a new draft constitution.

At the top of the traditional system is King Mswati III. Dlamini said Swazi people admired the King and followed his lead.

“Even if he is talking about the dangers of HIV and AIDS, I do feel he could display a bit more leadership,” Dlamini said. “He should lead by example, because people really do follow him. He should walk the talk.”

In 2001, the king declared a five-year ban on virgins having sex, a move seen as positive by some international organizations because it might slow the spread of HIV. But his attitude toward women reinforces traditional gender roles. For example, he often selects a bride from the thousands of virgins who perform the annual bare-breasted reed dance in his honor. Unlike others, he can easily afford the price: one cow.

In 2002, Zena Mahlangu, 18, was forced to marry the king. A friend had persuaded her to join the reed dance and they were invited to meet Mswati to pay homage, sparking rumors that he was interested in her.

“She was afraid, she even lost weight. She was really scared because she had met the king once and he was a very intimidating person, even for adults,” said her mother, Lindiwe Dlamini, no relation to the activist. Dlamini, a communications manager at the country’s telecommunications monopoly, is one of the few women to occupy a management position in Swaziland.

Royal emissaries took Zena from school one day and did not tell her mother for two days.

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“I was scared. I was angry. I was helpless,” Dlamini recalled. She was cut off from all contact with her child and launched High Court action. After lawyers advised her she had no recourse, she reluctantly withdrew.

“I think I’ll always have regrets about the life she could have had,” said Dlamini, who was prevented from seeing her daughter for a year after the marriage.

Now Dlamini talks to her by phone several times a day. The young woman, who says she rarely sees her husband, gave birth to a boy five months ago, and he is her joy. Dlamini and her daughter meet occasionally, but they miss each other. “She was my best friend,” Dlamini said.

Not all men view women as something to be used or abused. When Portia was raped, the only person who helped her was Madolo, the vendor. Even he finds it difficult to explain what makes him different.

“I myself was shocked after the whole incident as to how I rescued the girl from such a violent crowd. I think God gave me the strength to save the girl, because personally I don’t think I could have done it myself,” said Madolo, 24.

Rage and the idea that his sister could have been the one in trouble helped him elbow his way through the crowd of conductors with their sticks. He tried to cover Portia with a cloth, but the attackers ripped it to shreds. Someone hit him in the face. People shouted abuse at him.

He tried to pull the girl to safety, but each time the crowd eagerly hauled her back. Then a bus, as it was backing up, dislodged the crowd for a moment, and Madolo saw the chance to drag Portia on board to safety.

It was only a five-minute ride to the police station, but the driver, who wanted to look for customers, dropped them halfway. Bleeding profusely, Portia walked with Madolo the rest of the distance.

“The police asked what this girl had been wearing that could have provoked this attack. I was shocked and puzzled,” Madolo said. Police later charged three conductors out of the dozens who participated.

After the arrests, Madolo fled to Mozambique for two months because of threats and accusations from bus conductors, who were furious with him for helping the girl.

Portia’s chances of getting justice depend on Madolo. He fears he could be killed if he testifies in court.

As he struggles with the decision, Madolo does not feel much like a hero. “No one ever praised me for what I did,” he said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

AIDS infection rates

Swaziland has the world’s highest percentage of adults, 15 to 49, living with HIV/AIDS. All 10 of the highest percentages are in countries of sub-Saharan Africa:

Swaziland: 38.80%

Botswana: 37.3%

Lesotho: 28.9%

Zimbabwe: 24.6%

South Africa: 21.5%

Zambia: 21.3%

Namibia: 16.5%

Malawi: 14.2%

Central African Republic: 13.5%

Mozambique: 12.2%

Source: UNAIDS


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