On International Women’s Day 2021, the ICJ publishes a paper considering the ways in which women in Eswatini face systematic discrimination in laws and practices, in violation of the country’s obligations under international human rights law with respect to women and girls’ right to health, including sexual and reproductive health.
The publication concludes with recommendations to the Eswatini authorities on how they may enhance women and girls’ ability to fully and equally benefit from and enjoy their right to health and their other human rights without discrimination.
The paper is entitled “Swazi Women’s right to health during the time of COVID-19: Recommendations to ensure enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”. It was launched through a conversation with Zanele Thabede-Vilakati, the National Director of Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) Research and Educational Trust in Eswatini. In the discussion, Thabede-Vilakati outlined the obstacles faced by Swazi women before and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Talking about the ICJ publication, she added:
“The ICJ report on Swazi Women’s Right to Health during COVID-19 is an in-depth observation of all the issues which women face in their daily lives in getting access to their basic right to health. The recommendations made by the ICJ can only enrich Eswatini authorities’ approach to protecting and empowering women and I hope that they take these recommendations on.”
The report considers Eswatini’s obligations not only under national law, including under the Swazi Constitution, but also under international law in an effort to assess whether Eswatini is complying with its human rights obligations.
The report reflects on the obstacles that Swazi women have faced before and during the COVID-19 pandemic in exercising their right to health. Some of the key human rights concerns include: lack of access to sexual and reproductive healthcare; the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS among Swazi women; obstacles in accessing sexual and gender-based violence-related healthcare services; and inadequate access to shelters and housing for women in Eswatini.
Based on the publication’s assessment, recommendations are addressed to Eswatini authorities for specific measures to be taken to protect women, as well as meet Eswatini’s obligations under national, regional and international law.
Speaking about the report, ICJ’s Africa Regional Programme Director, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh stated,
“The right to health is a crucial right to everyone, but in a country such as Eswatini – one of the most severely HIV affected countries in the world – women’s right to health is a priority as women remain disproportionally affected by HIV. We hope that this report and its recommendations cause the relevant actors to reflect on ways in which they can assist Swazi women, especially in light of the increased obstacles that women have faced in accessing their right to health due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In order to realize the right to health of women and girls in Eswatini, the report recommends that the Eswatini authorities take certain measures, including the following:
- Ensure access to family planning health services for all women and LGBT persons;
- Parliament must enact domestic legislation, which clarifies the circumstances under which abortion is legally available to women;
- Ensure all health facilities, throughout the country, are equipped with all essential medicines;
- Guarantee access to information and education on sex, sexuality, HIV, sexual and reproductive rights especially for adolescents and youth;
- Prioritise the provision of pre- and post-natal healthcare services in a manner that does not risk COVID-19 transmission; and
- Repeal discriminatory laws, policies and practices in the area of sexual and reproductive health, including restrictive abortion laws and laws and policies that discriminate against LGBT persons;
- Adopt legislation providing for legal aid to enable victims of gender-based violence to be better able to access justice and effective remedies for SGBV, including through courts;
- Ensure comprehensive services for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence are available during the pandemic;
- Increase access to healthcare services for victims and survivors of gender-based violence, including medical and psychosocial support and ensure adequate rape kits in all health centres; and
- Increase access to shelters and alternative accommodation for victims of gender based and domestic violence in Eswatini, including accommodation or shelters that should be made available in all parts of the country.
Eswatini is a monarchy. Under its Constitution, customary law, except insofar as it is inconsistent with the former, is recognized as part of Eswatini’s legal system in addition to common law and statutory law. Eswatini is party to several binding international, including regional, human rights treaties guaranteeing the right to health, including sexual and reproductive health, for everyone, including women and girls. Irrespective of the protections afforded in Eswatini’s domestic legal system, as a matter of international human rights law, Eswatini is bound to fulfil its obligations to realize the right to health, including sexual and reproductive health.
Nokukhanya (Khanyo) Farisè, Legal Adviser (Africa Regional Programme), e: nokukhanya.farise(a)icj.org
Tanveer Jeewa, Communications Officer (Africa Regional Programme), e: tanveer.jeewa(a)icj.org