As a young, unmarried woman, 17-year-old Silondukuhle* was supposed to attend the annual Umhlanga – or reeddance – festival. This year, she refused to go.
“My parents try to convince me, but I don’t want to go. I’m scared,” says Silondukuhle, standing at the window of her home in Mshingishingini, a hamlet in the northern tip of Swaziland, just a few miles from the border with South Africa. “Last year there was an accident and many of the girls died. One family lost three girls. I’m scared that it will happen again.”
The Umhlanga, a Swazi cultural tradition that celebrates chastity and virginity, attracts tens of thousands of women from across the country. On the final day of the festival, the young women, or “maidens”, parade bare-breasted at the royal village. Traditionally, the king is allowed to choose one of the women as a wife, but in recent years the festival has been more about preserving a cultural heritage.
However, there is growing criticism from human rights groups who claim cultural ceremonies are enforced in Swaziland by the last absolute monarchy in Africa.
“They say we are not forced, but we are. Families who don’t send their daughters to the Umhlanga have to pay a fine, usually a goat or a cow,” says Nokwanda, 29, a teacher. “When I was a young girl, I attended the Umhlanga festival three times. I enjoyed it, but as I became older I wasn’t comfortable with some of the things.
“The girls sleep in small classrooms or tents without proper sanitation. There are also many rules you have to adhere to when you attend the Umhlanga. This is the 21st century. We shouldn’t be forced to wear certain clothes.”
Swaziland, a small, landlocked country in southern Africa, has a deeply male-dominated society. Polygamy and violence against women is widespread. As a recent report by Action for Southern Africa put it: “Women continue to suffer discrimination, are treated as inferior to men, and are denied rights.”
The country is ruled by King Mswati III, 48, who appoints ministers, chiefs and judges – and owns most of the land.
“We are tired of him. But we could be victimised if we speak out. In our country we are not allowed to voice our opinions,” says Nokwanda.
For some girls, taking part in the festival is a way to make some money.
Last month, just outside Swaziland’s largest city, Manzini, a group of girls and young women were sitting on a patch of grass. Strewn around them were bags containing clothes, blankets and food. They were waiting for a bus to take them to one of the royal palaces, where they would be commissioned to cut the reed, or , that gives the festival its name.
“It’s going to be a fun week. We are very excited,” said Mapu, one of the older teenagers. “We are given 500 rand [£25] each.”
Some of the girls have attended the festival several times before; others are here for the first time. Girls as young as 11 are required to attend, “if they are strong enough”.
Roughly two-thirds of the Swazis live below the poverty line and much of the population is at risk of food insecurity and malnutrition, according to the World Food Programme.
For a poor family, the income from the reed dance is a valuable contribution to the household. “It’s a well-planned strategy to entice the girls with money, shoes and new schoolbags,” says Thuli Zwane, from Swaziland Rural Women’s Assembly. “The majority come from poor families and for them to get a meal is bound to attract them.”
Zwane is a women’s rights activist and pro-democracy advocate. As a child, she refused to attend the Umhlanga. “My family was fined 20 emalangeni [£1] every year from 1986 until I got married. You can just imagine how much money that was at that time,” she says.
Zwane, a mother-of-six, says she had no choice but to send her 14-year-old daughter to the royal court. “I’m not at all comfortable about her being there. I’m worried that she will be exploited, meet boys, or go to bed on an empty stomach. But if she doesn’t attend, she could be denied a scholarship for further studies. As a parent, I have to send my child in order to secure her future.”
She says forcing or bribing young girls to attend the Umhlanga is a violation of their human rights. “Chiefs abuse their power and penalise families who don’t take part. The whole idea is for women to show themselves naked in front of the king so that he can choose a wife. It’s very degrading to women. We don’t walk around bare-breasted at home. Why should we do it at cultural ceremonies?”
For some young Swazis, the Umhlanga is a week of parties and hanging out with friends. Bianca, a well-dressed woman in her early 20s, takes selfies with her friends wearing make-up, colourful beads and designer sunglasses. “We don’t take the whole chastity thing too seriously. I’m 99% virgin,” she laughs.
On the eve of the festival, hundreds of women are crammed into huge tarpaulin tents erected near the royal village of Lobamba. Blankets, mattresses and carrier bags cover the floor. Outside the camp, street vendors sell printed fabrics, clothes and drinks. Drunk teenage boys spill out of a local bar.
For Mapu and her friends, the week has been long and exhausting. “I’m tired and thirsty. We didn’t get much sleep. But we don’t regret going. We need the money,” she said.