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IRIN PlusNews HIV/AIDS News and information service | Southern Africa | SWAZILAND: Campaign to inform women of their legal rights underway | Gender issues, Stigma Human rights Law | News Items
Tuesday 21 February 2006
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SWAZILAND: Campaign to inform women of their legal rights underway

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

©  James Hall/IRIN

President of the the Swaziland branch of Women in Law in Southern Africa, Lomcebo Dlamini

MBABANE, 27 January (PLUSNEWS) - The Swaziland branch of Women in Law in Southern Africa has launched an awareness campaign to teach HIV-positive women about their legal rights.

"There are three issues: acquainting HIV-positive women with their protection under existing laws, finding legal representation for women when they have a case to make and, finally, changing antiquated laws that need to be reformed to take into consideration gender rights and AIDS," president of the women's law society, Lomcebo Dlamini, told PlusNews in an interview.

In a country that only elevated the legal status of women from minors to adults at the beginning of 2006, where the estimated HIV prevalence is 40 percent and widespread stigma and discrimination are ongoing problems, few have turned to the legal system for relief.

The biggest obstacle preventing women from seeking redress in courts is their inability to pay legal fees - two out of three Swazis live in chronic poverty, and women are worse off than men in this traditionally paternalistic society.

"Women with HIV/AIDS are abused on the job and at home from the moment their illness is known, but the lawyers can't see us without money," said Alicia Mabuza, who used to be housecleaner in Manzini in central Swaziland.

"My doctor told my employer that I was HIV positive. He fired me because he and his wife did not want me to be in the same house as the children. He told our church pastor, and the church committee told me not to come there any more," she said.

According to Dlamini, Mabuza's human rights were violated in three ways: the violation of doctor-patient confidentiality, her unwarranted dismissal from work, and the discrimination by her church.

Seeking a legal solution is not on the cards for Mabuza, who has since obtained other work and has joined a different congregation.

Many other women could not afford to turn to the courts when they lost their jobs after their HIV status became known, or encountered inheritance or property rights problems.

"There is no pro bono legal work [done without compensation for the public good] in Swaziland. This is not like South Africa, where a law firm has to demonstrate that a certain percentage of its work is done pro bono to have its business license renewed," Dlamini added.

NGOs offering legal advice to women living with HIV/AIDS have to refer cases to private practitioners, despite having qualified lawyers as staff members, because only those working for government or private legal firms are granted the 'right of audience' in court, Dlamini explained.

"It is hard to find lawyers to meet the caseload we have - there are only a few lawyers we can refer to," said Nonhlanhla Dlamini, director of Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse.

Most Swazi women are not aware of their legal rights, a situation Women in Law is addressing by holding regional workshops based on a model developed by the International Committee of Women Living with HIV/AIDS and funded by the United Nations Development Programme.

The workshops familiarise women with the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which Swaziland ratified in 2004, and other international accords and local laws enacted for their protection.

"While it was fine that women understand government's commitment to these accords, it was too much at an abstract level for the women when they had immediate issues to deal with," Dlamini commented.

"For instance, women said to us, 'I got tested, and my in-laws exiled me from my husband's homestead'; 'How do I support my children when my husband's family claimed all our inheritance after he died of AIDS?' Then there are women living with AIDS who want to ensure that their children receive their property after they pass away," she noted.

With a growing demand for their services, Women in Law and other NGOs offering legal support are calling for new legislation to respond to the emerging crisis: some of the existing laws date from colonial times and fail to protect HIV-positive women or recognise their needs.

"What we require now is test cases to set legal precedents and donor funding to support these [cases]: we need precedents for inheritance issues and employment issues - how long workers with AIDS may stay on the job, and when they can be shifted to other duties as their illness progresses," Dlamini observed.

In time, she hopes these new laws "will lead from knowledge to empowerment, to action".


Recent SWAZILAND Reports
Young heroes website appeals for help for AIDS orphans,  14/Feb/06
More people but still too few testing for HIV,  20/Jan/06
"Sewage sociology" finds condom use rising,  5/Jan/06
HIV positive Swazis take govt to task over ARV supply,  6/Dec/05
Relief for the elderly as pensions go up,  21/Nov/05
· AIDS Media Center
· The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
· International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS
· International HIV/AIDS Alliance

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