What the king unwittingly did was set a minimum price for sex with virgins. Pegging the value of $18 for chastity meant anyone getting more money for sex was operating at a profit and the sound business decision was to sell that chastity.

In the hot October of 2014, King Mswati III’s government in what is now the Kingdom of eSwatini, announced it would pay girls a stipend of $18 for holding on to their virginity. It was a laughable decision and it still is. For starters, he commodified and went on to undervalue the girlchild’s chastity by putting a price tag to it – an insulting $18. What he unwittingly did was set a baseline amount for how much “sugar daddies” could give girls in exchange for sex. Pegging the value of $18 for chastity meant anyone getting more money for sex was operating at a profit and the sound business decision was to sell that chastity. A Swazi girl, Thandi Tfwala, in 2014 bluntly told IOL, “A girl could get R200 for just one sex act. Government must pay more.”

It was a gross miscalculation on Mswati’s part. If he intended to empower young girls to resist the advances of older men, he should have done better.

In addition, Mswati unwittingly blamed the girls and, more generally, the women of Swaziland for the high HIV prevalence rates. He believed the only hole to be plugged was the vaginal orifice and HIV would come to its swift demise in his kingdom. It was a silly argument. It was especially more ridiculous in the face of statements King Mswati’s cousin, Prince Mangaliso Dlamini, had made in 2010 about not being scared of HIV and how he did not believe “that abstinence, faithfulness and circumcision are a means of curbing HIV.” Basically, this means men in Swaziland can harbor such ignorant and dangerous attitudes while women are to be controlled and policed. This “feminization” of HIV and the response to it has made men bystanders in a problem and remedial process they should be a part of. The royal family’s patriarchs are front and centre of this monumental failure with the king himself getting a young wife just about yearly. Just last year, the king married a 19-year-old after the annual reed dance. While the monarch might want to deny it for cosmetic purposes, he knows the promotion of chastity benefits him and other men. Sexual expression for men is liberating while women’s expression is cordoned off by culture and if culture proves ineffective, by an insulting $18 per month.

The $18 was not even the first time eSwatini had dealt with HIV by policing young girls as in 2001, the King reinstated the “umchwasho” chastity ritual for five years banning sexual relations for girls younger than 18. He called young girls “flowers that need to be protected” but made no mention of the boys and the men. No mention was also made of Kings and interestingly, the King was to marry a 17-year-old in that same year. It was an irony for the ages! The declaration failed right from the beginning. It oversimplified issues by supposing the key to stopping HIV was to force girls to keep their legs shut. The reasoning then ultimately becomes that HIV spreads because girls cannot keep their legs shut. While it was only a custom Mswati III did not invent, he should have realised that in the 21st century, customs have to adapt to the realities of life or risk being rejected. He ended up being a part of the rebels and years later accepted the failure of umchwasho. The 2014 move to pay the girls was therefore “a more sophisticated” attempt at imposing chastity and like its predecessor, it failed. However, it is clear the king is obsessed with what little girls are doing with their reproductive systems.

ESwatini has however had success in combatting the spread of HIV using other methods which have little to do with little girls’ virginity. Last year, the Kenyan Nation had a splashy headline: Swaziland turns around world’s highest HIV infection rate. The report said, “The country where about one in three adults are infected with the AIDS-causing virus, has vastly expanded public programmes to test people for HIV infection and put them on life-saving antiretroviral treatment (ART). ”

This method works. Policing young girls does not work and neither does making the state a sex-buyer. King Mswati made himself look clueless in addressing HIV but he has been redeemed by the relative success of other methods employed in the country.