Mbabane — The practice of men marrying underage girls - which has been an accepted social norm for centuries but has been linked in recent years to the spread of HIV - was recently declared illegal in Swaziland.
Known in SiSwati as 'kwendizisa', the marriage of an adult man to an underage girl was considered a legal "grey area" prior to the promulgation of the Children's Protection and Welfare Act of 2012.
According to the 2005 Swaziland constitution, some customary practices are allowed unless they conflict with constitutional clauses.
"Swazi men marrying girls once the girls enter puberty is not a customary law. It is not mandatory. It is tolerated because it has always been done. But times are changing, and Swaziland has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world. This practice has added to the spread of HIV. It is a great victory for public health and for the rights of girl children that this outmoded practice must now end," AIDS activist Sandra Kunene told IRIN/PlusNews.
Married adolescents are at greater risk of HIV infection because many of them are in polygamous unions, face sexual violence or are unable to negotiate safe sex. The girls also tend to have little contact with their peers, restricted social mobility , low levels of education and limited access to media and health messages.
Enforcing the new law
Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku announced the government's intention to enforce the Child Protection and Welfare Act by prosecuting men who marry underage girls.
Sexual activity with underage girls was previously prosecuted as statutory rape - but only if it occurred outside the bounds of marriage.
Girls aged 15 and older were legally permitted to marry in accordance with the 1920 Girl's Protection Act, and underage sexual activity within marriage was considered acceptable.
Today, perpetrators face statutory rape charges, and they are additionally fined R20,000 ($2,400) by the child welfare law. The new law also penalizes parents and guardians who collude with adult men to orchestrate a child marriage. Offenders face prison terms of up to 20 years.
At a press conference, Masuku described the marriage of girls under the age of consent as "child abuse" and said the fine should be raised to R100,000 ($12,000). "This would send a message," Masuku said.
Traditions linked to epidemic
Other sexual practices that have been permitted because they are rooted in traditional Swazi life have also been linked to the country's high HIV rates.
"One of these is the practice of having the widow, after the funeral of her husband, be 'claimed' by her husband's brother. She must go to his home and be his wife because polygamy is also permitted in Swaziland," said Agnes Simelane, a child welfare officer and counsellor of abused children.
"If the husband died of AIDS and he infected his wife with HIV, the virus could be passed on to the new household. Or if the husband's brother is HIV-positive, he could infect the widow. Either way, by custom the woman has no say in the matter," she said.
"Traditionally, marriages were arranged between families," said Thomas Graham, a local historian. "When the Swazi population numbered in the tens of thousands in the 19th century and life expectancy was 35 years old for a Swazi, it made sense to marry young and have multiple wives... to keep the family and Swazi nation existent."
The new prohibition against child marriage, he said, "throws Swazi custom on its ear, and it is a landmark step in the tug of war between traditional and modern life".
Nthando Dlamini, an HIV testing and counselling officer in Manzini, welcomed the announcement. "Many men still believe that if they have sex with a virgin this will cure them of AIDS and rid them of HIV. Since AIDS has become widespread in Swaziland, we fear that one motivation for marrying underage girls was that some men desired such 'protection'.
That way has now been shut off for them," he told IRIN/PlusNews.