Demystifying Eswatini’s Sexual and Domestic Violence (SODV) Act 2018: Empowering University of Eswatini students to make positive changes in their communities

Organised by Dr Joseph Molefe Coper (2006 Scholar from Botswana, PhD Sustainable Urban Livelihoods, University of Reading)

On Friday 6 March 2020, staff and students at the University of Eswatini gathered at the Kwaluseni Campus, Sports Emporium to take part in a half-day event to learn more about the newly enacted Sexual Offenses and Domestic Violence (SODV) Act of 2018 and to promote the importance of Sustainable Development Goal 5 in achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls. A total of 306 students registered to attend, including 16 executive committee members representing seven student clubs and societies who were specially invited to attend due to their roles as student leaders.

The Kingdom of Eswatini legislature recently enacted the SODV Act, to curb gender-based violence, which is a major obstacle to the attainment of gender equality in the country. Although widely welcomed as a major milestone towards women empowerment, the SODVA has been criticised by the government and Swazi society being at odds with traditional Swazi culture, including the deeply entrenched subjugation of women based on traditional cultural norms. The Government of Eswatini and its development partners such as NGOs and UN agencies, are actively engaging in campaigns to sensitise the public on the essence of the legislation and to dispel negative interpretations and misunderstandings.

It is against this background that the event was organised to sensitise and empower students and staff of the University of Eswatini (UNESWA) on SODV Act and gender equality issues more broadly. In addition to the ten invited speakers, the event was graced by several special guests, including his Hon. T N Masuka, Deputy Prime Minister of Eswatini, who delivered the keynote address. He was joined by Professor J Thwala, Vice Chancellor, UNESWA, Dr N Ndongo-She, UN Resident Coordinator in Eswatini, and Professor T H Gadaga, UNESWA Pro-Vice Chancellor (Academic).

Also in attendance were Professor P E Zwane, UNESWA Pro-Vice Chancellor (Administration), Mr B Stewart, Principal Secretary – Ministry of Education and Training, Ms M Mndawe, Principal Secretary in the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office,  Mr M Dlamini, Kwaluseni Inkhundla Member of Parliament, members of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office, and Mrs Masuku, Deputy Prime Minister’s wife.

Placing guidance for the University

In his welcome remarks, the Vice Chancellor of UNESWA, Professor J Thwala, lamented on the seriousness of gender-based violence in both Swazi and wider society, citing a recent example reported in the media of a man who burned down his home with his wife and children inside. The Vice Chancellor recognised that the University of Eswatini was not immune to incidents of gender-based violence, further highlighting the need and importance of events and discussions such as this.  In response, the Vice Chancellor confirmed that the University is putting measures in place to guide against gender-based violence of all kinds and that a comprehensive gender policy had put before the University Council for approval and implementation.

In her special address, the United Nation Resident Coordinator in Eswatini, Dr N Ndongo-Seh congratulated the Kingdom of Eswatini for enacting the SODV Act. She emphasised that this legislation came at the right time to address serious challenges of gender-based violence and high levels of teenage pregnancy in the country. She stated that women and girls are vulnerable to gender-based violence mainly because of poverty and low levels of education, and that out of every 1,000 school girls, 87 will drop out due to pregnancy. She said one girl dropping out of school due to teenage pregnancy is one too many and pledged that UN agencies will continue to support Eswatini to fulfil its development goals.

The formation of the SODV Act

In his keynote address, the Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) of Eswatini, Hon. T N Masuku explained how the SODV Act came to be. He stated that the discussions to formulate this legislation started in the year 2000 but it came into fruition almost 20 years later, something which he said is regrettable but commendable at the same time. The DPM stated, “There are many misconceptions regarding the Sexual Offenses and Domestic Violence Act of 2018 and one of them is that the act is a biased Government instrument in favour of women. I assure you, this Act is not biased but a people’s cantered initiative”.

He continued to clarify that the enactment of this Act had involved a very comprehensive public consultation process since 2000. He emphasised that the Act had been implemented to deal with escalating cases of sexual and domestic violence. The DPM stressed the overall purpose of the legislation is to protect the integrity of the family unit. He said families are no longer a place of safety for almost everyone, particularly women and children, with high incidents of gender-based violence happening within the family context.  He said that the Act was enacted to criminalise the so called ‘tibitendlu’, a traditional norm of not interfering in other people’s family affairs. He said that ‘tibitendlu’, instead of bringing harmony within families, brought havoc and misery to many. As per the provisions of this Act, any person who fails to report wrong doings witnessed in a neighbours’ homestead will also be charged for an offence.

The DPM passionately called for men and boys to join him in the fight against gender-based violence and challenged all men who were in attendance to take time and thoroughly read and understand the Act to avoid perpetuating gender-based violence out of ignorance, because ignorance of the law is never an excuse. The DPM ended his speech by requesting the Management of the University of Eswatini to invite him again soon to come and engage with the students on this very same topic.

The scale and scope of SODV in Eswatini

Following the opening remarks and keynotes, formal presentations were delivered by a range of stakeholders, including:

  • Sergeant N Bhembe, Royal Eswatini Police Service (REPS), ‘The nature, extend and spatial distribution of gender-based violence cases reported to the REPS since the inception of the Sexual and Domestic Violence (SODV) Act 2018’
  • Mr S J M Gama, UNESWA Law Department, ‘Importance of the SODV Act from a legal aspect’
  • Dr S M Nyawo, Theology and Religious Studies Department – UNESWA, ‘Theological and religious perspectives on gender and sexuality: implications on understanding the SODVA’

In her presentation, Sergeant N Bhembe from Royal Eswatini Police Service (REPS) highlighted statistical evidence on the SODV cases reported to the REPS and how the reported numbers differ between rural and urban areas (and regions) across the country.

This was a very important discussion as it presented evidence of the scale and scope of SODV cases across the country. The University’s Department of Geography offered its expertise by producing maps for the REPS to visualise the spatial distribution of such cases. It emerged from the presentation that SODV cases reported to the REPS differ greatly between urban and rural areas. In general, urban areas tend to have high cases reported compared to rural areas. Sergeant N Bhembe stated that some of the reasons for this disparity were unknown and there is a need to investigate them. She concluded by calling on  researchers at UNESWA to look into this issue to better inform and support the operations of the REPS, and also  asked researchers investigate why men are the biggest perpetrators of violence, and also why they conceal abuse perpetrated against them, as very few men report cases of abuse and yet are also victims of SODV.

As a member of the UNESWA Law Department, Mr S J M Gama focused his presentation on the importance of the SODV Act from a legal aspect and emphasised that it falls squarely within the purview of the criminal justice system. He explained that the criminal justice system aims to be a pragmatic process of dispute resolution and enforcement of public values. He noted that while a criminal trial is a search for the truth the primary drive that guides the trial is the search for proof.

He explained that the SODV Act seeks to protect persons against certain harm or injury and that the objectives of the  Act give effect to some rights in the Constitution; to strengthen and bring together the Roman-Dutch common law principles and statutory law with the aim of adequately providing protection to complainants of sexual offenses and domestic violence in a non-discriminatory manner, to respond to the outcry on the escalation of sexual offenses and domestic violence, and to give effect to international human rights instruments which the country is signatory to. Mr Gama noted that to unpack the SODV Act requires more time than his presentation could manage as it involves a rather extensive piece of legislation which straddles two worlds: sexual offenses and domestic violence, but had touched on the key aspects in relation to the law.

The final presentation was delivered by Dr S M Nyawo of the Theology and Religious Studies Department at UNESWA. She located recent cases of gender-based violence within the less talked about scripture in the Bible. She said gender-based violence is an ancient evil that for thousands of years has harmed countless women. Her presentation interrogated an ancient text that narrates a story which belongs to the tradition of Deuteronomic history written at about 550 BCE, during the Babylonian Exile. Based on her passionate and thought provoking re-reading of this ancient text, Dr Nyawo emphasised that there are several stories of sexual and other gender based violence in the Bible, but these are hardly ever talked about in churches and in public spaces because they are too difficult to talk about, and yet they can be powerful tools to help open up conversations about gender-based violence in different platforms. She concluded her talk by calling young woman to break the bonds and constraints which relegate them to the bottom of society.

Final questions and closing remarks

Following the presentations,  attendees had the opportunity to take part in question and answer session, as well as to share their thoughts and feedback on the discussions. One of the major questions asked related to the extent to which policies and programmes developed by the different stakeholders implementing the SODV Act take into account the empowerment of men and boys in the fight against gender-based violence. When responding to this question Mr C N Dlamini, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology & Social Work, indicated that the Government of Eswatini, in collaboration with its development partners, are currently developing programmes to deal with this issue. He gave an example of a programme aimed at working with men in different sectors of society to be positive role models of school-going boys. He also mentioned that this programme will be broadcast on Eswatini Television in due course so that the message can trickle down to families.

Another important question related to the role of the University of Eswatini in ensuring that what was presented is taken forward in University programmes and activities,  Responding to this question in his closing remarks Professor T H Gadaga, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Academic), said that the message from the event was loud and clear and promised that the University will do all what it can to embrace it. He promised that the call to make the University curriculum gender-responsive by reviewing General Education Courses will be on the main agenda of the University management.

SODV Act demystified?

Feedback gathered from attendees indicated that the event had made a positive impact on attendee’s understanding of the SODV Act, with some noting that before the event they had no knowledge about the Act and others sharing their initial confusion when the Act was first enacted. Attendees providing feedback revealed that the presentations and discussions had clarified the Acts role in protecting citizens from stalking and sexual assault towards both men and women. It is hoped that attendees are now in a better position to share the key messages of the SODV Act and empower others.

Photos from the event are available on CSC Flickr