Single mothers in Swaziland

Swaziland is a country of great inequality where a minority is rich whilst two-thirds of the population survives on less than a dollar a day, half of them going hungry. As in most countries in the world, women bear the heaviest burdens of such inequality because, amongst other things, of their lower social and legal status and subsequent lack of access to education and finances. Women are generally heavily discriminated against in Swaziland, both legally and culturally, even though the country’s new constitution promises equal treatment for women and though Swaziland is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). One group of women that is particularly vulnerable, stigmatised and prone to despair and despondency is that of single mothers, including teenage mothers – although the two are often interconnected as one of the main causes of single motherhood is early pregnancies.

Unfortunately, little has been done by the Swazi authorities to improve the conditions of single and teenage mothers and no organisation in Swaziland have until recently focused specifically on this group. Single mothers and teen mothers receive no government aid or grants in Swaziland and receive little or no help from their families or communities, even though teenage mothers account for over a third of all pregnancies in Swaziland. On the contrary, when they are found to be pregnant they are often expelled from school and ostracised and stigmatised by their neighbours, communities and families. The psychological stress that is the obvious result of their situation often leads them to acts of desperation, and abortion (which is illegal in Swaziland) and infanticide are widespread. Studies have furthermore shown that children born by single mothers in Swaziland are more likely to develop developmental and behavioural disabilities, and their mother’s financial situation often ensures that they continue a vicious cycle of poverty and little or no education.

Apart from being related to poverty because of social factors such as the collapse of the social security of the extended families due to AIDS and urban migration, and the fact that women are mostly in unskilled or informal sector jobs if at all, the reason for the particular vulnerability of this group is also related to discriminatory cultural or customary practices. These practices include a general dependency upon husbands or fathers due to traditional laws that treat women as minors by stipulating that they cannot own land or property or open a bank account without the acceptance of their husband. In Swaziland, status for women comes with marriage, childbirth outside marriage is generally frowned upon, and patriarchal attitudes that specifically target single and teenage mothers have become internalised.