/ 4 December 2021

Little justice for gender-based violence cases in Eswatini

Eswatini Unrest
Repressive: At least 80 people were injured in Eswatini on 20 October 20 when security forces cracked down on pro-democracy protests in the kingdom. (AFP/Getty Images)

Eswatini has taken great strides in its battle against sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Yet the repressive environment created by the authorities has exacerbated a range of social problems in Eswatini, including the high rates of domestic and gender-based violence. 

Pro-democracy protests flared up across the country in May 2021 after the police allegedly killed a student, Thabani Nkomonye. Protestors are demanding the lifting of the ban on political parties, a safe and productive national dialogue leading to democratic change and the release of all political prisoners including members of parliament Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube. As part of the attempts to curb the protests, the authorities have twice ordered internet and telecommunications shutdowns.

In a report the International Commission of Jurists Africa submitted to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the ICJ drew on decades-long work in the country to document the human rights record. The report paid specific attention to sexual and gender-based violence and highlighted the difficulties survivors face to get justice. 

“During the engagements between the ICJ and local civil society organisations, participants explained some of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing political unrest on women, in particular,” ICJ Africa director Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh said. 

“For example, under lockdown, there have been many instances of women being subjected to SGBV by their abusive partners, and the survivors were not able to access domestic violence shelters.”

One of the main problems is the shortage of resources and trained staff to handle cases of gender-based violence, according to the report. Prosecutors and police, for example, who are trained to handle these cases are in short supply. 

The shortage of forensic equipment and expertise delays the collection of forensic evidence for trials, and gender-based violence cases experience excessive delays in the justice system. The report noted that with heightened sexual and gender-based violence cases increasing during the pandemic, cases are piling up. It added that sometimes police send survivors home without assistance because they are insufficiently trained to provide assistance. 

Other times, this is because of limited resources such as transport to take survivors to one of three One-Stop Centres. The centres provide healthcare, counselling services, legal aid and try to meet basic needs like clothes, food and housing.

Although the One Stop Centre is a huge win in terms of enabling the country to deal with gender-based violence, the report said there is a shortage of qualified medical staff including no dedicated, on-site psychologist. There is just one psychiatrist for the country’s public health sector, which means patients can wait up to six months for an appointment.

There is also a shortage of equipment such as rape kits and swabs. Legal aid for survivors is limited, which creates another barrier to justice, said the report. 

Nonhlanhla Dlamini, the director of the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse, reiterated the need to revamp the justice system “even if it means setting up specialised courts that will just deal with [sexual and gender-based violence] cases”.

 “When a person reports, a person is looking for justice. We need to have the wheel of justice moving fast so that when cases are being reported, at the most the delay is a month and you know the case is gone to court and the case is complete,” she said.

Although the law is comprehensive and the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Act is a progressive and comprehensive legislation, this does not mean implementation is widespread, Dlamini said, adding that there have been cases where perpetrators have received suspended sentences for serious gender-based violence crimes. In other scenarios, people with power are not held accountable at all. 

“We do have good legislation but it’s as good as useless if we don’t implement it,” Dlamini said. “When we have some people committing an offense and not being held accountable, then that is a problem. If you are a high profile person, you will not get arrested no matter what you did. You will still get away with it.”

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people face discrimination and Eswatini still criminalises consensual same-sex sexual conduct. The government has refused to allow Eswatini Sexual and Gender Minorities the right to register as a nonprofit organisation and there have been inordinate delays in finalising a case which seeks to challenge the government’s decision to deny its registration, said Dlamini, adding that more than a year later, the courts have not issued a judgment on this case.

This article was possible with the support of the German federal foreign office and the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (IFA) Zivik funding programme. The views do not represent those of the German federal foreign office or the IFA