This year, the international theme for Day of the African Child, celebrated June 16th, is “Eliminating harmful social and cultural practices affecting children: Our collective responsibility.” Swaziland has taken the commemorative day a step further and the entire month of June has become Children’s Month: “Kukhulisa umntfwana yinsayeya yetfu sonkhe.”
SWAGAA, prides itself on its services and programs for children, including the Girls Empowerment Clubs which are in 33 schools in the four regions and have a total of 1320 members. Children are the lifeblood of the nation and consequently the organization has adopted two messages for this special month. Aimed at children, the first message is “Take pride in yourself. You are Swaziland’s future. Live with joy, but also take care. Don’t accept gifts, rides or invitations from strangers. Be safe, make friends, share information and make sure you report any incidences of abuse.”
The adult message is “Our children are our future. Protect, love and nurture them and they will grow up healthy and strong and be positive influences in our lives. Harm them and you harm yourself, and the nation.”
At the Children’s Month launch at Esibayeni Lodge on 10 June, the entire audience was in tears after a young girl spoke. Lungile Shongwe, a 16-year-old student at Mplume High School, is a Girls Empowerment Club member and a shining example of confidence and poise. And yet, half way through her speech she broke down. She was speaking out about social ills that children experience. Referring to polygamy, she talked abut competition among wives to gain favour and financial assistance from a husband, how children are neglected when money is not forthcoming, and how, when the father/husband dies, there is vicious fighting among the family for inheritance. “I know, I am a product of a polygamous family,” she disclosed. Turning away from the audience, Shongwe tried to hide her tears.
The audience was silent as she composed herself. Taking a deep breath she continued, speaking of young girls forced to marry men the age of their fathers, and how their lives are a risk because their bodies are not mature enough to carry children. When a teenage girl is married by a boyfriend by surprise and the red ochre is smeared on her forehead, Shongwe noted, “Her wings are cut off, she can no longer fly.” Education, career, and opportunities are not in her future. Other practices with negative effects that she mentioned were Kulamuta (molestation) and Kuhlanta (when a husband can marry his wife’s younger sister if his wife cannot conceive). She also talked of the degrading of Swazi culture, when men rape their own children, and parents give away their offspring for financial gain. A solution, she noted, was activating the culture of Umchwasho where young women are respected and not attacked sexually.
When Shongwe was finished, she received a standing ovation. Her performance was noted by the rest of the speakers at the launch, including Deputy Prime Minister Thembe Masuku. “She spoke from the heart, turning negatives into positives,” he said, adding “The Children’s Protection and Welfare Act states that it is the duty of every community member to report abuse. They must inform the chief, the police or a social worker if a child is abused in any way. I’m asking you to report these vultures who prey on children, our most precious asset.”
SWAGAA counselors see many cases of child abuse, covering all the situations Shongwe mentioned in her speech and more. For instance, relatives will sponsor a child so she can attend school. The family then turns a blind eye when it becomes apparent the child is being sexually abused by the sponsor. The Children’s Protection and Welfare Act must be put into operation to deter these perpetrators. Swaziland needs to become a safe place for children. Young people are this country’s future. Anyone who harms a child is harming the nation.