Swaziland's King Mswati III, whose country suffers the world's highest HIV infection rate, is calling on his male subjects to get circumcised.
The African continent's last absolute emperor, who has 13 wives, said men and boys needed genital circumcision to help fight the "terrorist" virus, which according to Agence France-Presse "infects one in four adults in the kingdom of nearly 1.2 million."
The campaign is based on research that shows men without a foreskin on their penis are 60 percent less likely to contract HIV, the virus that leads to the AIDS disease.
The U.S.-funded circumcision campaign aims to see 80 percent of Swazi males, aged 14 to 49, circumcised within a year, AFP reports, averting 90,000 new infections and saving the health system millions of dollars over the next decade.
It was unclear whether the king would himself undergo circumcision, which used to be widespread in Swaziland but was abandoned in the 19th century, to more closely associate himself with the campaign, the French Tribune reports.
The Swazi Observer reports that Swaziland's Prince Masitsela had long been an advocate of circumcision on health grounds, but that he last year missed a "national dialogue" on the subject because he was healing from circumcision wounds.
Now the king — who once pronounced that HIV-positive people should be "branded and sterilized" — is evidently coming around.
According to AFP:
The king likened the return of the practice to other traditions he revived in 2001 as a solution to the rampant epidemic: requiring young girls to wear tassels to display their virginity and banning men from having sex with girls under 18.
When the king broke his own ban by taking a 17-year-old wife, he fined himself a cow.
"It seems fitting that our men and young boys should be given an initiative that will help them fight this disease," Mswati reportedly told a gathering of thousands
in the southern town of Mankayane on Friday while "being entertained by bare-breasted teenage girls, troops of warrior regiments and a military brass band."
He also urged Swazis to "take care of your lives — stay away from activities that could give you the disease."
Campaigning for male circumcision in the country is not new, but has previously been viewed with suspicion because the king — the highest authority in the country — had not endorsed it, the Swazi Observer reports.
His pronouncement at Mankayane sports ground last Friday "is now expected to give the campaign a fresh impetus and encourage even those who had hidden behind the veil of culture to endorse it," it added.