Swazi girls celebrate as king lifts ban on sex for under-18s

Click to follow

In 2001, King Mswati III, Africa's last absolute monarch, reinstated for five years the umchwasho rite, banning sex for girls under 18. The move was ridiculed as old-fashioned and unfairly focused on girls, and the king himself was accused of ignoring it.

With criticism mounting, King Mswati decided to end the ban a year early. The girls arrived at the queen mother's home at Ludzidzini singing: " Saphose safa ngumchwasho", loosely translated as, "We were sick and tired of umchwasho".

They dropped their woollen tassels in a heap, which state radio said would be burnt at a public celebration today marking the official end of the chastity rite. They then bathed in a river in a ritual intended to purge the bad omens associated with wearing tassels.

King Mswati and his mother, Ntombi Thwala, are expected to attend the festivities, which will be marked by dancing and the slaughtering of cows in honour of the girls, some of whom kept their chastity vow for four years.

Within days, the king is due to hold the annual reed dance ceremony at which he traditionally picks a bride from thousands of young girls who dance before him dressed in little more than beads and traditional skirts.

Nkonto Dlamini, head of a traditional regiment made of unmarried girls, said King Mswati was expected to send them tomorrow to gather the reeds which are used to build the wind-break for the queen mother's compound. When they return, there will be dancing on Sunday and Monday, which has been declared a public holiday in Swaziland.

More than 20,000 Swazi girls have registered to take part in the reed dance, with more expected to come from the Zulu kingdom in neighbouring South Africa.

At 36, King Mswati already has 12 wives, one bride-to-be and 27 children. His late father, King Sobhuza II, who led the country to independence from Britain in 1968, had more than 70 wives when he died.

Aids has hit Swaziland harder than almost any country in the world, with roughly 480,000 victims in a nation of more than a million people estimated to be infected by HIV.

During the five-year ban, Swazi girls were instructed to wear a tasselled scarf as a symbolic badge of virginity. If an umchwasho girl was approached for sex by a man, she was expected to throw her tassels at his homestead, obliging his family to hand over a cow.

When King Mswati chose a 17-year-old as his ninth wife in 2001, about 300 young women marched to a royal residence, laying down their tassels in protest.

His aides said the ban was designed to discourage casual relationships, not marriage. But King Mswati surrendered the cow, which was roasted and eaten by the young women.