Saturday, January 3, 2015

Swaziland's retrogressive and primitive cultural practices harming fight to end child marriages

King Mswati III. Reuters file photo
Swaziland is one of the countries where human rights are a burning issue. Press freedom is scarce and its cultural traditions are retrogressive especially for girls rights. Case in point being the reed dance which is performed annually in which King Mswati chooses a ''virgin'' as his next wife. Currently, he has fifteen wives.
The reed dance is one of the most dangerous practices which not only exposes girls to abuse but diminishes their value as anything more than sex objects. The parading of girls like commodities is a medieval practice which needs to be ditched in this era of civilisation.

The reed dance can be classified in the same category as female genital mutilation as it is one of the most harmful cultural practices still being done on the African continent. Forgive me because I almost typed vultural practices. The sort that are proliferating child marriage and other gross violations of girls rights. The efforts of international bodies, the African Union included, to end child marriage cannot in any way be aided by these "virgin wife" practices because we can assume that when some men go looking for virgins they may lower the age bar until they find one.
Therefore, on one hand, the continent is grappling with a scourge called child marriage, a monster swallowing our young girls, and on the other hand cultures and traditions which are closely guarded and abused by patriarchs.

In Swaziland, girls are protected from marriage until they reach the age of consent which is set at 18 but harmful traditions continue to be practiced under the guise of culture. There is also customary law which exists alongside the judiciary law. However, the customary and judiciary law are often in conflict with each other. The lack of harmony between customary and legal law is noted in Stephen Nmeregini Achilihu's book  Do African Children Have Rights?: A Comparative and Legal Analysis of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in which he writes that in the same Swaziland the Customary law states that a girl can be married "upon attainment of puberty which can be as low as twelve". This is a dangerous system which can be manipulated by greedy men as there is no clear definition of what puberty means. It is a system which gives with one hand and grabs away with the other. This customary law provides loopholes for dishonest Swazi men to take young girls ''who have reached puberty'' as wives.

Can African girls rights be achieved without political will, behavioural change and a paradigm shift from the leaders? Can the leaders of today with education, new global trends and human rights not stand up to say this kind of tradition stops right here with me? '.

I get curious and furious at the same time. What is puberty in Swaziland? What is the purpose of the reed dance? All I see is girls becoming vulnerable to rape by merely participating in the reed dance where the King chooses only one girl, and the rest are left vulnerable to predators who can prey on them fully knowing they are virgins. It makes me realize that in Africa the scourge of harmful cultural practices and child marriages will take more than just a campaign.
To end child marriage in Africa, it will take political will, sweeping legal reforms, behavioral change, exemplary leadership and a continental effort by African leaders.

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