Help us help ourselves, say Swaziland’s young single mothers

Swasmo

Women in Swaziland are heavily discriminated against, both by law and by custom. According to the former, women in effect have the status of minors and cannot get a bank loan without the consent of their husbands. According to the latter, women can be fined for wearing trousers by traditional authorities, nearly half of Swazi men believe it is okay to beat a woman, and two thirds of young women have experienced sexual violence of some sort. But young single mothers are even worse off than the average women in Swaziland. Teenage mothers account for over a third of all pregnancies in Swaziland, but they receive little or no help from the government, their families or communities. 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.

Swaziland Single Mothers’ Organisation (SWASMO), the only organisation to work specifically with young single mothers, was formed in 2009 in an attempt to help and mobilise young single mothers in Swaziland. The initial idea was to form self-help to promote self-reliance, mutual support, mobilisation and education to try and improve the position and consciousness of single mothers. But mobilising the young single mothers and raising funds has proven harder than anticipated.  “Most young single mothers have a fatalistic view of themselves and society and do not believe that life can be any different or better than it is presently,” says SWASMO’s founder and project coordinator, Beatrice Bitchong. “And even amongst other women, there is resentment towards the young single mothers.”  As for fundraising, Maternity Worldwide, a Danish organisation that works with health care, financial security and protection for women and children in Africa, had contacted SWASMO in 2011 to discuss plans for supporting a self-help project financially.

“But after an appraisal in November 2011 that saw representatives of the Danish organization visit SWASMO in Swaziland, several gaps were identified,” says Beatrice Bitchong. “We need to be clear on the target group, as it was found that the existing self help groups are made in majority of elder women who still have a strong stigma against young women. And we need to establish a well-defined organizational structure.  Focusing on closing these gaps was found to be a prerequisite for effective self-help projects output by SWASMO.” But Beatrice also has the solution to these challenges. “Having young single mothers as our main target group and working to establish a well defined organizational structure is what we will be focusing on in the future. I have surrounded myself with some committed young women and we are trying to build a structure that has a clear focus on young single mothers and transforming SWASMO into a membership organisation. We will be coming up with ideas for a strategic plan and project in the near future.”

As for funding, the organisation, that has until now mainly had to rely on money from its volunteer workers, is planning a few small fundraising events, ad is considering introducing membership fees. But as Swaziland is a poor country where two thirds of the population survive on less than a dollar a day, and where the government has trouble even paying its civil servants, Beatrice Bitchong is aware that she must also look elsewhere for funding. “We are interested in other donors who can help us strengthen the organizational capacity of SWASMO and help Swaziland’s young single mothers. They need it more than most,” she says.

By Peter Kenworthy, Africa Contact

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