SWAZILAND: Poverty-stricken AIDS widows pin hopes on new constitution
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
MBABANE, 26 September (PLUSNEWS) - A new association of widows in Swaziland hopes to raise greater awareness of the plight of women who have lost their husbands to AIDS.
"We grow in numbers daily - the epidemic is creating a nation of widows," said Lindiwe Vilakati, a member of Litsemba Lebafelokati (SiSwati for "Hope of the Widows") Association.
"In a sense, we are the worst sufferers of AIDS," said the chairwoman, Nonhlanhla Nene. "The main activity of our association thus far has been the burial of our members."
Sandwiched between its giant neighbours, South Africa and Mozambique, the small kingdom of Swaziland has the world's worst HIV/AIDS rate, with close to 40 percent of adults infected. Widows who do not succumb to AIDS contracted from their husbands often live out their lives in dire poverty.
"Sixty percent of the association's members have no means of earning a living," said Nene. "They are helpless."
That despair is palpable when talking to Gogo ("Granny") Motsa, a 55-year-old mother of four, whose family could barely make ends meet when her unemployed husband was still alive.
"He could hunt wild game and fish, and before he became too ill he could do odd jobs. He cultivated our little field of maize. We did not starve - now, we are weak from hunger," Motsa said, standing at the edge of a field that produced some cotton this year.
The unrealised profits from the cotton harvest illustrate the vulnerability faced by widows.
"I could not plough this field myself. That is not the work of a Swazi woman. The children were too small, so this man said he would plant cotton on our field, sell it, and I would get half the money. He did grow cotton, and took it away. He left me with R200 (US $30), and said he would bring the rest. I have never seen him again," Motsa related.
The government recognised the need to protect the meagre resources of Swaziland's burgeoning population of widows when the Constitutional Draft Committee finalised the nation's constitution last month. The document calls on parliament to enact legislation regulating the property rights of spouses, including common-law wives, as soon as practicable after the constitution goes into effect early in 2006.
"A surviving spouse is entitled to a reasonable provision out of the estate of the other spouse, whether the other spouse died having made a valid will or not, and whether the spouses were married by civil or customary rites," Clause 35 of the constitution reads.
An attorney with the NGO, Women in Law in Southern Africa, considered the clause an acknowledgement that the Swazi custom of giving all a deceased man's property to his father's family has been abused.
"Greedy relatives take everything and leave widows in poverty - at the hour of their greatest need they are burdened with further worry; the children have no means of support. It is barbaric. The constitution seeks compassion for widows by legislating an end to greedy relatives," she said.
Community volunteers in rural areas are canvassing small farms like Gogo Motsa's for an emergency census of widows and vulnerable children in need of food, medical attention and social services. The new widows' association plans to do the same, and to urge government officials to recognise the needs of its members.
"We must press our MPs to come up with the laws to protect widows' property rights, like the constitution says," said Vilakati. "I can foresee these laws going nowhere if we do not make our voices heard."