Go! Go! Swazi Sisters!

Mbabane

More than 1 500 mostly HIV-positive women staged an unprecedented protest in Swaziland on Thursday against a foreign shopping tour by eight of the ruling monarch's 13 wives, in a country ravaged by Aids.Dressed in red, white, blue and orange T-shirts, the demonstrators marched across the capital, carrying placards with such slogans as, "we want multi-party democracy now", "enough is enough", or "taxpayers' money does not belong to royalty". "With this march, we want to drive home the point that we people living with HIV are not happy with the way our money is being used," said Siphiwe Hlophe, spokesperson of two NGOs for HIV-positive women - the Women's Coalition of Swaziland and Swaziland Positive Living - which organised the protest. It appeared to be the first such demonstration here by people living with HIV as they questioned how money could be spent on a shopping trip when Swaziland - with the world's highest HIV prevalence rate - faced shortages of medicines including Aids-fighting drugs.

The eight wives, children, maids and bodyguards left the impoverished mountain kingdom last week to shop for the "40-40" double celebrations to mark its 1968 independence from Britain and King Mswati III's birthday on September 6. "We cannot be allowing such exorbitant, luxurious expenditure of the taxpayers' money in the face of the dire poverty which is demonstrated by the fact that two-thirds of the population are being fed on food aid," the women said in a petition against the chartered flight.Close to 40 percent of adults in the landlocked southern African nation are living with HIV and Aids, the highest infection rate anywhere in the world, according to United Nations figures.Per capita income here is just over $1 000, according to government figures - the lowest in southern Africa.But government spokesperson Percy Simelane justified the spending spree for the celebrations."Poverty has been with us for many years. We cannot then sit by the roadside and weep just because the country is faced with poverty," he said. "We have made great strides as a country that gives us pleasure in celebrating the 40 years of independence and the king's birthday," Simelane added.

Swaziland is Africa's last absolute monarchy and is known for its annual Reed Dance celebrations in which thousands of bare-breasted young women dance in front of the royal family.

- Sapa-AFP