Mbabane — The relief felt by health officials and activists several months ago at the apparent outlawing of child marriages now appears to have been premature, with Swaziland's traditional leadership recently declaring that such unions are acceptable under customary law.
"I have not received any instructions that ['kwendzisa'] [the custom of a man marrying an underage girl] should be abolished," Velebantfu Mtetwa, the country's top traditional leader, told the Swazi press. As governor of Ludzidzini royal village, where the traditional seat of government is located, Mtetwa is known as Swaziland's traditional prime minister.
Little attention was paid to the country's traditional leadership last year when the powerful royal counsellors to King Mswati III said they would review the Child Protection and Welfare Act of 2012 and, if need be, raise objections.
Instead, attention was focused on Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku's declaration that any man found to contravene the act by marrying a girl under the age of 18 faced arrest and prosecution. The marriages would be annulled and the former husband could be fined R10,000 (US$1,100). A man guilty of raping a girl faces a R20,000 (US$2,200) fine and prison term of up to 20 years. King Mswati, a strict traditionalist, approved the law in September 2012.
Damaging to girls
UNICEF estimates that, globally, about 70 million women aged 20-24 were married before reaching 18 years old. Of these, some 23 million were been married before turning 15. The consequences of child marriage can be life threatening: 50,000 girls aged 15-19 die of pregnancy- and childbirth-related causes each year.
The child protection act notes that children forced into marriage face serious psychological and social damage, and that girls' educations tend to cease as they take up household duties.
Activists have welcomed the law, which is seen as a means of curbing HIV transmission. "The longer young women put off childbirth, the more likely they are to stay in school and, of course, avoid HIV," said Sophia Mukasa Monico, country representative for UNAIDS.
"Such practices spread AIDS and contribute to Swaziland having the highest HIV prevalence in the world. It's unfortunate that AIDS activists appear to be 'anti-culture' because, as Swazis, we love our culture. But some practices need reforming, and this seems impossible to do," said Sylvia Dube, director of an AIDS testing and counselling centre.
Law made powerless
But the new statutory law, originating in the cabinet and passed by parliament, has been rendered powerless by the superiority of Swazi Law and Custom if a man chooses to marry in a traditional ceremony. The law appears now to apply only to "Westernised" Swazis who wed in civil ceremonies before a magistrate after having acquired a marriage license.
Swazi Law and Custom has never been written down but is interpreted by traditional leaders whose primary authority is Mtetwa. Cabinet officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Masuku, are appointed from the recommendations of royal counsellors, and these politicians are aware of their power relative to the country's traditional authorities.
Mtetwa came out with the traditionalists' stance on child brides following the arrest of a local soccer star for the rape of a 14 year-old girl. The accused stated that the girl was his bride, and that their families had agreed to the marriage. "If the parents and the girl have agreed, the authorities never penalize anyone," Mtetwa said.
In terms of modern law, an underage girl cannot make such a decision. But in terms of tradition, she also has no say because marriages are arranged between families by the girls' parents or older relatives. In addition, official records for traditional marriages can be incomplete because many go unreported.
With no national awareness campaign to educate Swazis about the Child Protection and Welfare Act, it remains unclear whether Swazi girls are aware of their rights. People who choose to challenge such unions have nowhere to go to lodge a complaint.
"What is most disturbing is the fact that most of these 'marriages' are forced, with the young girls having little or no say in being married to much older man," said Maureen Littlejohn, communications officer for the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse, an NGO that counsels survivors of gender-based and child violence. Littlejohn noted that poor families are often influenced by gifts of cattle and money to give up their daughters.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]