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A blow to curbing the practice of child brides in Swaziland

In Swaziland, around 5% of girls are married before the legal age of 18. However, last year, campaigners and health officials in the country were delighted when a new law was approved aimed at preventing child marriages.

In September, the deputy prime minister gave details of the new law, which stipulated that any man who was found to have married a girl under the age of 18 faced arrest and prosecution. The marriage would also be annulled and the man could be fined over 1,000 dollars. In addition, any man found guilty of raping a girl would face fines over 2,000 dollars and possible imprisonment of up to 20 years.

The new law was seen as a welcome step to protecting young girls, who face greater risks from childbirth. It was also seen as a way to help curb the transmission of HIV/AIDS. With over a quarter of the adult population infected with the disease, Swaziland has the highest HIV prevalence in the world. Speaking to IRIN, the UNAIDS representative in Swaziland said “the longer young women put off childbirth, the more likely they are to stay in school, and, of course, avoid HIV”.

But now the efficacy of the new law is in doubt. Recently, Swaziland’s traditional leadership declared that with any union made under customary law, a man can still marry an underage girl. This announcement was made despite the fact that the king of Swaziland, a traditionalist, had approved last year’s new law.

The backing of traditional leaders in favour of child marriage effectively renders the new statutory law powerless, since Swazi Law and Custom have superiority if a man marries in a traditional ceremony. This would mean that the new law only applies where weddings have taken the form of ‘Westernised’ civil ceremonies and before a magistrate.

The traditionalists’ stance on child brides came to light when traditional leaders became involved in the case of a famous footballer accused of raping a 14 year-old girl. The accused sportsman stated that the girl was his bride and both families had agreed to the union. The traditional leader of Swazi law and custom (which is not written down) then declared that if the parents and girl had agreed to the marriage, no penalties should be imposed.

According to the culture and traditions of Swaziland, a girl has, in any case, little say in an arranged marriage, where the union has been agreed by parents or older relatives. With little or no national awareness about child protection issues and rights, it therefore looks increasingly likely that young girls will continue to be forced into marriages without their consent and the practice of child brides will remain largely uncontested.

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