Lately, there has been a flurry of activities on the issue of child marriage in various parts of the world, including Africa.
In July, the Nigerian legislature attempted but failed to repeal a provision in its constitution that allows child marriage. Sen. Ahmed Yerima, who married a 13-year-old Egyptian child in 2010 at age 49 after paying a $100,000 dowry, successfully foiled the repeal by framing it as an attack on Islam.
Meanwhile in Swaziland, a soccer player was arrested for violating the country's 2012 Child Protection and Welfare Act, which banned marriages between young women under age 18 and adult men. Violators face an R20,000 ($2,000) fine, statutory rape charges, the marriage's annulment and up to 20 years imprisonment. Colluding parents face similar charges.
According to UNICEF, 70 million of women age 20-24 were married before age 18, with 20 million within this group marrying before age 15. The ramifications of early marriage on girls are extensive: Yearly, 50,000 young mothers die during child birth or from related causes. Children who marry early cope with severe psychological and social damage. Eventually, they give up school altogether to tend to household duties.
At the heart of the Swazi law was another concern: curbing the country's HIV transmission rate, the world's highest.
“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.
Both Nigeria and Swaziland are coping with the laws on their books differently. Many from Nigerian civil society have mobilized for the law's repeal with a worldwide petition and through grassroots organizing. Swaziland with its strong law on the books grapples with enforcement as traditional rulers become more aware of the law, seemingly at odds with some of its cultural implications.