Swazi King revives tradition to fight AIDS

King Mswati III of Swaziland orders girls to wear 'tassels of chastity' on their heads. Violators face a one-cow fine.

Siphiwe Masuku's tiny market stall has just revived a product that hasn't been seen here for almost two decades: the badge of the virgin, the umcwasho. By order of the king, one of Africa's last absolute monarchs, all Swazi virgins must wear the bulky yellow and blue tassel around their heads as a symbol of purity and a warning to men to stay away.

It is this tiny impoverished mountainous kingdom's way of battling AIDS. Like its larger and more powerful neighbor South Africa, with which it shares most of its border, Swaziland has been heavily hit by the AIDS epidemic. An estimated one-quarter of the population is HIV positive, and about 20,000 have already died.

But many, especially in urban areas, doubt whether King Mswati III's revival of the ancient chastity custom will be effective in preventing the spread of HIV.

"What it's doing is clouding the issue," says Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of Natal who has studied the revival of virginity testing in the era of AIDS among the Zulu people of South Africa.

"This revival, like the revival of virginity testing in this province, is an extension of that gendered narrative on AIDS. It's saying that women are responsible for this epidemic and that they are responsible for stopping it."

Urban and rural opinion split

Opinions from the girls themselves are mixed, and often reflect the growing divide between the still-conservative rural areas and the rapidly modernizing cities in this country of less than a million, where cars share highways with herds of horned Nguni cattle.

"I think it will be a good thing for teenagers or young girls, because it will help them abstain from sex and AIDS," says 15 year-old Simphiwe of Piggs Peak, a rural logging town in northern Swaziland. She asked that her last name not be used, out of fear that she will get in trouble at school for expressing an opinion about the king's dictate.

But 25 miles away in the country's bustling capitol city, Mbabane, Simphiwe's counterparts are less enthusiastic about umcwasho.

"When I first heard about it, I laughed," says Tanele Dlamini, a stylish 15-year-old, as she plays with her French fries at the city's new Kentucky Fried Chicken. "I was, like, that's not going to work."

The king announced the return of umcwasho, last enforced by his father in 1982, in September at the country's annual reed dance, a colorful festival in which scantily-clad young virgins bring reeds to the Queen mother.

For the next five years, teenage Swazi virgins will have to wear the yellow and blue umcwasho. Those over 19, and those in relationships, will wear a red and black tassel. Pants have been banned. Men who violate the umcwasho by even touching a virgin will be fined a cow, payable at the rate of about $150, while girls will be fined for not wearing one.

In rural areas, traditional chiefs will be responsible for enforcing the umcwasho regulations. In the cities, where ties to traditional leaders are weaker, the police will play a role.

Many say enforcement will be difficult, especially in urban areas where traditional ways have given way to more contemporary lifestyles. In rural parts of the country, such as Piggs Peak, where nearly 70 percent of the population lives, traditional chiefs still wield enormous power, and there is little doubt that umcwasho will be enforced.

"[Men] are afraid of it because it is a cow, and that is a whole lot of money," says Simphiwe, who adds that her boyfriend hasn't said anything about the new rules, but that he knows she will not have sex before marriage.

But back in Mbanane, Tanele and her school friends - who, like kids their age in New York or Denver, spend their weekends in the city's mall - say the new rule will not keep teenagers chaste. Tanele says most of her friends are having sex, and that many will either don the tassel and continue to have sex or will find ways not to wear it.

"The guys are not going to abstain from sex," she says. "If they have to, they'll just go to other places like Mozambique or South Africa and then come back with AIDS."

The girls also feared that in a country where many men still believe that sleeping with a virgin will cure AIDS, the umcwashos will make them walking targets.

Hezekiel Siyaya, mayor of the tiny town of Hlatikulu, at the southern end of the country, acknowledges that it will be difficult to impose umcwasho in the cities. Although he will make his own young daughters wear the tassels, he says townspeople will not easily bend to the new rules.

"In the town, you are free to do anything," he says. "They do not follow the traditional ways."

Still, he hopes umcwasho will slow the spread of the disease, at least in some areas.

The girls in Hlatikulu haven't bought their umcwashos yet, says shopkeeper Mrs. Masuku, who recalls wearing one in her own youth. "But they are coming to see it and ask the price."

Tanele and her friends say there's only one way to stop AIDS: education.

"Parents should just teach their children. Like my mother, she doesn't teach me about sex, so I have to find out from my friends," she says. "If you don't want us to get AIDS, you have to educate us, not [do] this umcwasho thing."

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