Photographs by Krisanne Johnson on exhibit October 3, 2011 - November 26, 2011 at The Half King in New York City.
A tiny African nation of one million, the Kingdom of Swaziland reports the highest percentage of HIV positive people in the world, with the hardest hit being women aged 15-29. Life expectancy for women has dropped from 61 to nearly 31 over the past 10 years. Since 2006, I have been documenting the coming of age rites of young Swazi women to show images that might counter Western conceptions and stereotypes of Africa and reveal the multifaceted reality of HIV. The images in this exhibit cover three themes: The first is the traditional Umhlanga Dance, a rite of passage into womanhood, in which approximately 40,000 virgin girls gather to march for five days, with the King often choosing one as his wife. The second theme is a look at modern youth culture with rite of passage moments such as marriage and high school dances. And the third theme is an intimate look inside the homes of HIV-positive women—many of whom suffer disproportionately from HIV because of unequal dependency at home, little say in sexual negotiations, gender-based violence, and isolation and abandonment.
~ 2007. A young girl wears a miniskirt in rural Swaziland. Western dress such as miniskirts has been deemed “un-Swazi” and used to justify acts of physical abuse against young girls and women. A report commissioned by UNICEF and the CDC found that one in three girls has experienced sexual violence by age 18 in Swaziland.
~ 2010. Swazi high school students compete at a cheerleading competition between various local schools.
~ 2010. An HIV-positive woman, 19, swims at the natural hot springs swimming pool in Swaziland. Recently told she must start taking anti-retroviral drugs, she is scared to start due to the stigma surrounding the drugs. She now dreams of joining the army because the salary would help support her newborn child.
~ 2008. Young Swazi women and men party at a nightclub. Life expectancy in Swaziland has dropped to under 32 years of age.
~ 2007. A health counselor demonstrates how to use a female condom to a group of women.
~ 2011. An HIV-positive woman, 20, dances in her room while visiting with friends. Since her young son died in September due to AIDS, she has been depressed and drinking. She refuses to take anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs).
~ 2009. High school girls joke and dance to music during a hip hop dance competition held at a private high school in Swaziland. While some Swazis can afford private education, two thirds of Swazis live below the poverty line.
~ 2009. A teenager practices a flip off a wall in an urban neighborhood. He has joined his friends to create a hip hop dance crew in attempt to keep off the streets and away from crime and drugs. Unemployment is forty percent in the country and leaves many teenagers struggling to find jobs after high school.
~ 2006. A new bride cries before entering her new husband’s homestead after symbolically saying goodbye to her family. Swazi men are free to take as many wives as they would like as long as they can pay lobola, a dowry amount which is counted in heads of cattle.
~ 2007. Young Swazi girls sing and jest to passing cars as they join 40,000 virgin girls as part of the annual Umhlanga Dance, a right of passage into womanhood in Swaziland. Each year King Mswati III continues the practice of polygamy and chooses one of the girls to be his wife. He now has 13 wives.
TOP PHOTO: 2006. Young Swazi girls run and dance as they join 40,000 virgin girls during the Umhlanga Dance, a right of passage into womanhood. Each year King Mswati III continues the practice of polygamy and chooses one of the girls to be his wife. He now has 13 wives..