The southern African kingdom of Eswatini is ramping up rights for married women, enforcing the charge of rape against offending husbands — a taboo in conservative Swati society.
This week, 34-year-old Nhlanhla Dlamini became the first man to be arrested and charged with rape for having sexual intercourse with his wife without her consent.
Relying on the 2018 Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence (SODV) Act, which criminalises non-consensual sex between a husband and wife, police nabbed Dlamini and charged him with rape.
He was on Tuesday granted R50,000 ($3,400/ 3,100 euro) bail by the high court in the capital Mbabane and is set to appear again in court over the next few weeks.
“It’s the first one (case) to be recorded and be heard in open court,” Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA) spokeswoman Slindelo Nkosi told AFP.
First-time offenders are likely to be sentenced to up to 20 years in jail, while repeat rapists can get up to 30 years.
The historic arrest sent shock waves across Africa’s last absolute monarchy, formerly known as Swaziland, which has a deep-seated patriarchal culture.
The country’s ruler King Mswati III has married 14 women since he was crowned in 1986 aged 18.
He also has more than 25 children and a reputation for lavish spending while 63 percent of his 1.3 million subjects live in poverty.
– Conjugal rights –
“This law is against the indigenous values of our culture as Swazis,” married businessman Sabelo Mahlangu told AFP.
“You can’t tell me that a wife I married and paid dowry for, following our customs and traditions, can say to her husband he has raped her.”
“What nonsense is that?” he asked. “Even the Bible warns couples not to deny each other conjugal rights.”
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Mahlangu’s views are widely echoed across the country.
One Facebook user, Ndosi Shenge, urged men to have multiple partners “so that when one does not want sex, one would proceed to the next partner”.
But for divorcee and mother of two Sizakele Langa, the SODV Act is an important piece of legislation protecting married women as “men over the years had a field day abusing women without punishment”.
Langa said she left her 12-year marriage after suffering countless acts of marital rape.
“He had a tendency to grab me for sex after intense and unresolved arguments… When I refused him he would forcefully grab me,” she told AFP, adding that he would overpower her and she would not scream for fear of waking her children.
“No one in the family would have entertained my story that my own husband has raped me, neither the police would have believed my story.”
– Dowry, not ownership –
Gender-based violence is common in the landlocked kingdom wedged between Mozambique and South Africa, but perpetrators are rarely held accountable.
According to May 2019 police data, Eswatini recorded 2,900 cases related to the SODV Act over seven months.
The director of research group Women and Law in Southern Africa, Colane Hlatshwayo, said it was concerning that society had normalised the rape of women just because they were married.
The challenge is “where one spouse dominates the relationship and does not believe that they need the consent of their spouse to engage in sexual intercourse,” Hlatshwayo said.
SWAGAA’s Nkosi described the issue of marital rape as “thorny” because it is widely misunderstood.
“There is an increasing negative sense of ownership acquired by a certain percentage of men, especially after they formalise a relationship with the woman’s family in the form of paying dowry.
“This perception has contributed to the increasing level of intimate-partner violence simply because one believes they own the other,” Nkosi said.