By the time late August rolls around, most young American girls have done their back-to-school shopping and are eagerly looking forward to another year of friends, fun, field trips and inevitable piles of homework. Some are working hard to be accepted to a university or to get a job in order to further their lives and to benefit society. But for young women in Swaziland, Africa, late August marks the start of an important traditional festival that could potentially change the course of their entire lives.
The Reed Dance, or Umhlanga, is a traditional ceremony practiced by those who live in Swaziland, originally intended to encourage young women to stay abstinent and to prepare them for a successful marriage. Each year, girls from all corners of Swaziland flock to Ludzidzini Royal Village, dressed in nothing but colorful traditional skirts, carrying fresh-cut reeds for the Queen Mother’s windbreak. This year, a record-breaking 50,000 bare-breasted maidens were in attendance but not necessarily to celebrate virginity or abstinence until marriage. Since Swaziland has surpassed Botswana as the country with the world’s highest prevalence rate, the ritual has taken on more importance in recent years as a platform for raising awareness of HIV. But ironically, it has also taken on the role of providing King Mswati III (the 15th wealthiest monarch in the world) with many of his 13 wives since 1999. This year he did not select a wife from the throngs of women, most of whom are desperately poor and entertain fantastic daydreams of living in a palace and being driven around in a BMW. A 16-year-old girl named Tenene Dlamini said, “I wish the king would have chosen me because it’s nice at the king’s place. The wives live a nice life. Everything is done for them. They don’t work. They earn.”
Indeed, in a country where about 38 percent of the adult population is infected with HIV and more than two -thirds live in absolute poverty, who wouldn’t want a “nice” life? But it is impractical for this to be the only way these girls can live a decent life. So many women attend the ceremony where there is a very slim chance of being chosen or the King choosing a wife at all. It is completely contradictory of the effort being made against the HIV situation. This does not seem to matter to the king, however. In 2001, he started a five-year ban on sex for girls under 18 years old in order to reign in the pandemic (which actually led to an increase in prostitution), but violated it in 2005 by taking yet another wife. He had to pay the hefty fine of one cow to the girl’s family, and in 2002 attempted to use $45 million of government money to purchase a private jet while his people were starving and dying of AIDS. If he has been trying to prevent the spread of this disease, the king has done nothing but send mixed signals to young girls hoping for a better life. They are told to remain abstinent and not to have polygamous relationships, but then are told of the King’s newest wife and her brand new BMW Series 5, the fabulous palace she lives in and the stylish clothes she wears. Suddenly the idea of abstinence and marrying for love doesn’t seem very attractive when you’re struggling to survive. I am not saying a ban of the Reed Dance would help matters, as it is actually a ceremony to empower young women, or that the king should not take as many wives, but these girls need a chance to become successful without having to sell their bodies and their hearts. Once they can become confident, hold a job and support themselves without being dependent on a husband, I think the devastating situation of disease and poverty will see great improvement.
Maggie Fraser is a freshman premajor from Fort Worth.