Post by: Bheki Vilane, Senior Technical Advisor, Community Engagement, HC3 Swaziland
“We as traditional leaders cannot watch young girls acquire HIV and be exposed to sexual abuse in the name of marriage.”
Michael Magongo lives in a deeply rural village in Swaziland known as Bhadzeni Chiefdom. He, like the rest of the villagers, is a subsistence farmer growing corn and beans. He is married and, somewhat unusually, has only one wife.
Magongo is the “Indvuna” or chairman of a governing body under the countries traditional structure known as the ”Inner Council,” which means he is the second in command to the village’s Chief. Part of his responsibility is to ensure the safety of his village’s residents.
He lives his life according to Swazi culture and traditions. Like everyone in Swaziland, Magongo and his fellow villagers have been hard hit by the AIDS epidemic, which has particularly impacted the village’s young girls and women.
With funding from PEPFAR through USAID, the Health Communication Capacity Collaborative (HC3) provided Magongo and other traditional leaders with trainings aimed at helping these influential leaders understand the necessity of creating safe communities for their young women and girls. These community-held trainings engaged traditional leaders on issues of gender and HIV. Many of these men are living as their forefathers did, so discussing change around gender norms and behaviors is very challenging. But exploring different approaches to raising and ensuring the safety of women has brought change to this village.
“The gender and HIV training opened my eyes, it made me and other members of our Inner Council aware of the types of abuse and the link between gender-based violence and HIV,” Magongo said.
He shared the story of a 15-year-old village girl abducted by a 30-year-old man. The matter was reported to the Inner Council by neighbors who saw the young girl performing wifely duties and the Inner Council decided to intervene. The Council had a meeting with both families where Magongo educated the girl’s parents on the risks of letting her live with an older man and the importance of protecting her from gender-based violence and HIV. The girl’s parents appreciated the session and agreed that with support from the Inner Council they would meet with the man’s family to get their daughter back so she can return to school.
The Inner Council also educated the man’s family on gender and HIV, including information about how Swazi law prohibits sexual intercourse with a 15-year-old girl. After an agreement was reached to release the girl to her parents, the Inner Council and the girl’s parents met with her school’s principal to ask that he readmit her to school. Unfortunately it was discovered that she was pregnant and could not attend school until after she gives birth. But change is in motion.
According to Magongo, “We are now capacitated and committed to ensure that young girls are protected and this is done to prevent new HIV infections in our community. All citizens are encouraged to respect the legal age of marriage and to prevent HIV infections through educational messages made by the leaders during community meetings.”