The king of Swaziland has announced a five-year ban on sex for young people. He hopes to stem the spread of HIV and AIDS among his subjects. Girls in rural and urban parts of the tiny mountain kingdom are responding very differently to the news.
In both rural and urban parts of Swaziland, girls say when they first heard about the five-year sex ban, they thought is was a joke.
But it is no joke. Next week, unless King Mswati changes his mind, girls and young women will begin wearing traditional tassels known as "umcwasho." This will mark them as virgins. Any girl wearing them will have to abstain from sex for five years, and she is not allowed to wear trousers. Boys are not allowed to touch the girls wearing umcwasho.
Local chiefs are supposed to enforce the rules. The penalty for breaking the sex ban is one cow, or about $150, a fortune by Swazi standards. The fine for wearing trousers is lower.
The United Nations estimates that in 1999, one quarter of Swaziland's adult population was infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
In a marketplace in the tiny southern town of Hlatikulu, shopkeeper Siphiwe Masuku has just started selling umcwasho. They cost about $2.50. When VOA visited her shop, she had not yet sold any. She says many local girls were just coming by to see what they look like. She said, "Some are saying it looks heavy! Some are saying it's too small! Some are saying it's too big! They are saying all sorts of things about it."
The umcwasho are pretty hard to miss. They are made of dyed woolen yarn. A thin strand is tied around the head, like a headband. In back, two large tassels cascade past the girl's shoulders to the middle of her back. Younger girls wear blue-and-yellow. Older girls wear red-and-black.
King Mswati is not the first Swazi ruler to order his young female subjects to wear umcwasho and abstain from sex. His father, King Sobhuza, did it twice - but never for as long as five years. One of Mrs. Masuku's customers remembers wearing the tassels when she was younger. "The boys were very much afraid of us! It is separating the girls from the boys. It's OK, because it prevents the young girls from falling pregnant," she said.
But times have changed in Swaziland. How will this time-honored tradition go over with modern young Swazi women? VOA visited several parts of the country to find out what they think. By and large, girls in the rural areas were much more open to the idea. A girl, in the northern town of Piggs Peak, was too shy to give her name. She said, "I felt happy because I am not a person who likes going out with boys, you see. So I wasn't worried about it."
One of her classmates, 15-year-old Simphiwe, says she and her boyfriend will just obey the rules. And other than wearing the tassels, she says, it will not make much difference. "I don't think I will ever have sex before marriage," she said. "That's what I tell myself."
But the story is very different in the capital city, Mbabane. A group of ultra-hip schoolgirls complained to VOA that the umcwasho are ugly, and will not match their clothes. Munching on chicken and chips at the KFC, 15-year-old Tanele Dlamini also says reviving the tradition will not keep anybody from having sex. "You always have to wear it on your head," she said, "no matter where you go. School or wherever. And it's so stupid, because most girls wear it, and they still have sex! Like I know people who have already worn the umcwasho, they are actually wearing it, and they are still having sex with boys."
Will reviving the tradition actually help prevent the spread of AIDS? In both rural and urban areas, girls admit that the prospect of a $150 fine may indeed prompt some boys to leave Swazi girls alone. But Tanele Dlamini says boys who want to have sex will just go elsewhere - perhaps bringing AIDS with them when they come back home. "Their boyfriends are going to go Mozambique, South Africa, you know, the neighboring countries," she said. "They get there, they get AIDS, they get other women there, and then they come back after five years and they just spread it at a faster rate than before."
Miss Dlamini also fears that wearing such a prominent symbol of virginity could attract the wrong kind of attention, because of a persistent myth circulating in much of southern Africa. She said, "Because the umcwasho is supposed to be worn by virgins. You know this theory about if you've got AIDS and you sleep with a virgin, you lose the AIDS? I know it's not true. But people are going to come in and start raping the girls because they think they're virgins."
In combination with the ban on wearing trousers, Miss Dlamini thinks the whole umcwasho tradition probably should remain a thing of the past. She continued, "It's easier to get raped if you're wearing a skirt! And it's so cold! It's supposed to be shivering rain, in skirts every day! And it's the 21st century! Not everybody wears skirts these days. You can't wear skirts like the whole week."
She and her friends say in order to avoid wearing umcwasho some of their classmates plan to lie about their nationality and tell authorities they are from Tanzania or France.
Miss Dlamini says she would rather not wear the umcwasho and her father is not happy about the idea either. But in the end, she says, it is up to him. She will have to do it if he says so.