Women’s rights activists in Swaziland have staged a protest over the royal family’s lavish spending.

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The march was staged to demonstrate against a shopping trip taken by nine of King Mswati III’s 13 wives last week, after they chartered a plane to go to Europe and the Middle East.

The protesters reportedly handed a petition in to the finance ministry, arguing that the money could have been better spent. They claimed: “We can’t afford a shopping trip when a quarter of the nation lives on food aid.”

However, royal family sources claimed the extravagant trip was necessary as the wives needed to prepare for the 40-40 celebrations next month, which will mark both the 40th anniversary of independence from Britain and the 40th birthday of King Mswati.

A source is quoted by The Daily Telegraph as saying: “The queens have to look radiant and that is why they have to go and buy quality for the big day. They were being spoiled.”

However, Women’s Coalition of Swaziland spokesperson Ntombi Nkosi said: “Those given the money do not even contribute a cent to the money they are looting.”

Siphiwe Hlophe, of Swaziland Positive Living, a co-organiser of the march, added: “We are against the idea of public funds being used in a questionable way by people who are not employed and do not bring any revenue to the country’s coffers.”

Earlier this week Jim Gama, the governor of the Swazi royal capital Ludzidzini, condemned the march as “un-Swazi”.

He said: “I have never heard of women marching. All I know is that a woman has to seek permission from her husband to register her disagreement with whatever was happening in society but not for her to march. That is un-Swazi.”

Swaziland – Africa’s last absolute monarchy – is one of the poorest countries in the world, having been in a state of emergency since 1973, and more than 40 per cent of the population is believed to be infected with HIV.