Evaluating women empowerment as the country 'celebrates' 53 years of independence

On the occasion of the 6th September, which is ostensibly the independence day of my country Swaziland, I challenged myself to reflect on some positive milestones that we have achieved since independence. I want to approach this reflection with objectivity, by appreciating even the small gains that brought us here, while also looking futuristically into the Swaziland to come.

For starters, I must mention that my grandmother, Princess Ntfombitodvwa Magagula-Mvubu of the house of Chief Madliza Magagula of Mbambiso in Mpumalanga, is celebrated as a pioneer of education in my extended clan. Even though she could not read and write, her conventional wisdom, expertise in agriculture, artistry trade positioned me to be the women I am becoming. It was through her insistence on education for both girls and boys that my mother and her siblings became the first generation to ever attend college in my extended family. While I still whine about being a first-generation student to ever set foot in graduate school, first to pursue the least travelled career path of an academician, I am still relatively privileged to have achieved the one thing that the generations before me could not even imagine in their wildest dream. Needless to say, the pre-independence era and part of the post-independence era was defined by the exclusion of women from the public sphere, including the ability to autonomously define themselves and exercise economic agency.


It would therefore suffice to say that we have evolved as a nation with regards to access to education, especially for young women and girls. Swaziland has made tremendous strides with regards to access to Education. Section 29 (6) on the Constitution provides that “Every Swazi child shall within three years of the commencement of this Constitution have the right to Free Primary Education (FPE) in public schools at least up to the end of grade 7.” As noted by the World Bank, the national average at Primary is at 98.9 with girls trailing behind slightly at 96.6%. While that may be read as a progressive step forward, it is crucial that we understand the gender dynamics that influence girls’ access to education.

As of August 2021, the World Bank estimates the female cumulative drop out rate to be around 13.58%, of which girls continue to miss out on tertiary education and end up counted amongst the poor of the poorest. It is worth noting that the right to and access to education for women is influenced by several other socio-economic factors such as geopolitics, access to sexual reproductive health services, cultural factors and socio-economic status. According to Enrolment Statistics from the University of Eswatini (UNESWA 2020/2021), only 4.82 % women were enrolled in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Science fields, while only 1.6 % females graduated from the same field in 2019/2020. Women continue to be concentrated in soft professions and service jobs, low-skilled and low paid while men predominantly occupy the dominant positions of leadership.

Gendered Citizenship

The systemic exclusion of women in education and economic opportunities may be traced back to the constitution. Ruth Lister, a British feminist theorist of citizenship rights suggests that citizenship rights are the conduit through which political citizenship is conferred, and ultimately the path through which the dichotomy of inclusion and exclusion in the realm of public polity is mediated. In the case of Swaziland sec 43 (1), (2) and sec 44 (1) and (2) expressly confer citizenship rights within a patrilineal line, while systemically precluding Swazi women from enjoying the same citizenship rights. Lister interrogates this gender dichotomy of citizenship, arguing that, “the indifference to the question of women’s citizenship also betrays a more general masculine norm in political theory masquerading as universalism so that women are either assumed uncritically to be incorporated or in the form of a false gender neutrality or they are simply forgotten; either way they are effectively invisible.”

While I may want to celebrate the fact that as a single woman, I have successfully acquired land in my own name, a privilege that was only initially available to widowed women like my grandmother, I still say that with caution. It is common knowledge that Swaziland’s dual normativity; the co-existence of customary law and civil is at its best dialectical as it bestows women equal rights via section 20 and 28 of the constitution which provides for equality and non-discrimination, while simultaneously empowering the traditional regime to thwart the same. This has dire consequences on gender and the political economy. For example, while the constitution bestows women equal rights to access land in Swazi nation land, the applicability of those potential privileges still rest on the shoulders of traditional leaders such as chiefs and inner councils who are predominantly males.

Women’s Political Representation

Given the gendered dynamics of citizenship rights, it should not come as a surprise that the post -independence era was defined by the paucity of women’s presence in the higher echelons of the state. Moreover, the systemic use of patriarchal nationalism and deployment of its gate-keeping machinery, especially in the rural areas is directly responsible for the curtailment of women’s political agency in parliament. While women constitute a majority of the electorate at 53% , their political outcomes have been historically low. Currently, women’s representation in parliament fares at 22%, with only 2 out of 59 women who won the elections via direct vote. The additional 20% were elected via royal appointments or voted elected by members of parliament through a very competitive and costly process that works in favour of women from the affluent class. This is indicative of deeply entrenched structural barriers such as the individual merit basis of the Tinkhundla system, and the first past the post -electoral system.

Meanwhile, history tells us that the pre-independence era was defined by the prominence of prominent women leaders such as Queen Gwamile and Queen Dzeliwe who earned a reputation as fierce leaders of the time. The legacies of these women area without their own controversies, simply because our history only portrays royal women as capable leaders, to the exclusion of all other women voices. This dynamic is also very animated by the contemporary era where it is typically royal women, traditional and business elites who have monopolized access to political power. This speaks volumes about the extent through which class-stratification is a defining feature of the Tinkhundla system of governance.

While the dominant narrative is that everyone including women is allowed exercise their political agency, it is very well known that the gatekeepers of the traditional regime regulate the inclusion and exclusion of women. Those who fit the norm of the “noble women” are included, while those who are seen to be an anomaly or are violently excluded. The following names: Mana Mavimbela, Jennifer Dupont, Doo Aphane, Lungile Mnisi and Ngco Dlamini among others, are evocative of the power of gatekeeping, patriarchal nationalism and disciplining difference. While the dominant narrative is that “women do not vote for each other,” a pragmatic study of the landscape for women’s political participation accentuate the entrenched structural barriers that have historically inhibited women’s political ambition and agency. It is therefore unsurprising that each of these women each have a story about their encounter with the brutality of patriarchal nationalism for either contesting for political office while female, young and an eligible voter, single, widowed, clad in pants or known to have radical political ideas.

Gender & Public Policy

The perpetual low concentration of women’s quality and quantity implies the reduction of women’s political presence to symbolic representation. Symbolic representation, women’s presence only serves a window dressing purpose, and often does not result the intended substantive outcome of gender sensitive legislation. Theorists of state representation have argued that women’s representation can only impact the patriarchal parliamentary culture and empower women to mobilize for gender sensitive public policies once they have reached a certain threshold, which is frequently referred to as the critical mass (30 to 40 % representation). The failure to adhere to the critical mass threshold only serves to depoliticize the initial objectives of substantive representation, which advances that women’s presence in decision-making bodies should be empowering enough to result in substantive acts, in form of gender sensitive laws.

The Sexual Offences &Domestic Violence Act 2018 epitomizes this reality. If this law was a child, it would be the black sheep of the family. Owing to the endemic culture of male dominance, the process of enacting this bill dragged over a period two decades as there were so many controversies that made it unpopular among the male folk, who occupy a substantive fraction of the parliamentarians anyways. Clauses such as the criminalization of unlawful stalking, flashing, the expansion of the scope of rape and criminalization of marital rape among others, were seen as controversial, and believed to potentially put men in a precarious position.

These and several other gender dynamics suggests that the independence era has failed to create an equitable landscape for gender equality in the social, economic, and political scenes. Instead, only a few elite women have been endowed with class privilege and access to opportunities that elevate them from ordinary women. This fundamentally challenges the government of tomorrow and their approach to public policy. This raises the need to even the playfield, first by enfranchising women through the granting of full citizenship and creating the necessary state machinery to advance gender mainstreaming across all sectors and at all levels of government. While women’s political participation may not guarantee gender equality, it is necessary for the government of the future to consider recalibrating the legal architecture for women representation by adopting the mixed systems of representation under multi-party rule to substitute the single member majoritarian system under tinkhundla system of governance.

While those women who have been endowed with political and economic power and social capital celebrate their elitist independence from the former colonial master, I implore all the ordinary women of Swaziland to continue agitating for the change they aspire to. I dare say that, unless we are all free, none of us free. There is a compelling need to build towards a vision of sustainable development that puts women in their diversities at the centre of the national policy agenda. In the advent of the Covid-19, the gender blindness of government’s policies was exposed by the way women were disproportionately affected by the pandemic as demonstrated by the increasingly high incidents of violence against women, the gendered impacts of the lockdown on women and their movement patterns. According to the Swaziland Action Against Abuse (SWAGAA), incidents of gender-based violence saw a 20% spike during the pandemic. These were further aggravated by the alleged episodes of rape, and torture of women by members of the military during the civil unrest. Central to these events is the failure of the government to establish policies that decisively protects women from violence against women and a justice system that is biased towards masculinity.

Under the Tinkhundla regime, we have noted that the system privileges an elite minority by elevating them to a level where they can compete with men, while marginalizing the underprivileged women by fixing them back to the domestic sphere. Given the history of marginalization, it is within women’s rights to ignite radical politics of refusal; refusal to participate in processes and systems that require women’s participation for purposes of legitimizing discourses of patrilineal nationalism without providing a genuine avenue for gendered policies, and refusal for one group of elite women to be pitied against the rest. A viable alternative would be one where women’s needs, views and experiences take a center stage in the ongoing process of political transitions and the recalibration of governance institutions, and the contemporary moment of political transition provides a rare opportunity for the women’s movement to drive an agenda of women’s enfranchisement that will reposition as equal agents as opposed to being subjects in their own country.