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Women’s rights take one step forward, two steps back

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MBABANE,  – Much to the frustration of gender activists, Swaziland’s Supreme Court has reversed a February 2010 High Court ruling that allowed a married woman to register property in their own name.

After centuries of being classified and treated as minors, the new Swazi Constitution granted women equal status in 2005. Activist Mary-Joyce Doo Aphane wished to register a house in her own name and challenged the country’s 1968 Deeds Registry Act. She was granted a High Court orderdeclaring the section unconstitutional.

Yet a mere three months later, “The Supreme Court suppressed the High Court judgment granting women the immediate right to register property in their own names. From a legal and constitutional point of view, this is a big deal,” Tenille Brown, legal advisor to the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA), told IRIN.

Although the Constitution grants men and women equal rights, in practice the old laws on the statute books still define gender relations in a country ruled by sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III.

The second-class status of women had long denied them their inheritance rights, and hobbled their progress as entrepreneurs and traders. Observers blame a lack of political will for the slow progress in replacing laws in conflict with the Constitution.

“The Constitution is clear that any law on the books that is counter to rights guaranteed in the Constitution must fall away, but in the face of government inaction, who is to do this?” an attorney who declined to be named told IRIN.

“We welcome the fact that Parliament has been directed that they have one year to amend the law, so that women married in community of property can hold property individually and with their husbands. However, we must remember that the constitution is now five years old. It is SWAGAA’s position that Parliament has taken too long to ensure that the laws of Swaziland provide protection for women,” SWAGAA said in a statement.

“People need to be aware that the inability of women to equally control the property they own with their husbands leads to situations of dependency and possible cases of abuse. We see many women who are not able to leave abusive husbands because it would mean they have nowhere to live, no money, and no family support.”

Most gender activists are sceptical that the deadline set by the Supreme Court will be met by parliament: “Given the amount of time that has gone by since the Constitution was enacted, we are not very hopeful,” Brown said.

The Attorney General’s office, which drafts legislation for parliamentary consideration, would not comment on its timeframe for revising the property law.

Swazi women are watching and waiting. “Thousands of Swazi women are trapped in abusive situations that are endangering their lives and mental health because no one wants to challenge the old patriarchal authority,” said Thab’sile Ndlovu, a secretary in Manzini, Swaziland’s commercial hub. “What use is the constitution?”


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