Swaziland - Swazi women kidnapped or coerced as teenagers into traditional marriages who wish to start new lives by obtaining divorces had their hopes dashed by King Mswati III this week.

At a ceremony where a cattle dowry was presented to the king’s family, Mswati said efforts by women to obtain marriage annulments in court were doomed to failure.

“Once a couple gets married the traditional way, nothing can undo that marriage. Only death can undo that marriage. There is no divorce; that is unknown to us,” Mswati told the gathering.

“Once we do it the Swazi way and complete the whole marriage process, then it becomes a done deal,” the husband of 14 known wives told the Swazi people.

At least two of the king’s wives have fled to South Africa to escape what they describe as stifling lives in a polygamous household. However, their marriages have not been annulled.

A female Swazi attorney who handles divorce cases said: “If the royal wives are stuck in their traditional marriages, what hope is there for the poor girls who were abducted or forced into traditional marriages?

“About seven out of 10 marriages in Swaziland are arranged traditional marriages. Women, in practice, are not equal to men in Swaziland, and they have no right to exit a failed marriage to someone they might not have even met when they were traditionally wed.”

The attorney said courts cannot grant divorces for traditional marriage because there is no marriage certificate to prove such a union exists.

Mswati seemed to have this in mind when he said: “We do not even need to sign any documents to prove that marriage, because you find that in future such documents are torn apart when some members of the family say the marriage is not in existence and, therefore, the documents should be torn.”

The attorney said: “With all due respect to His Majesty, he has an imperfect knowledge of legal marriage if he believes it is a piece of paper that, if destroyed, ends the marriage.”

One of Mswati’s own wives was the centre of controversy in 2002 when her mother took the royal household to court after the girl was abducted from her high school by the king’s men.

She was cloistered in preparation to become a royal wife, and not allowed to communicate with her mother.

The mother sued to have her daughter returned. The High Court of Swaziland ruled it had no jurisdiction over “customary matters”.

The mother was eventually allowed to see her daughter, who was later wed to Mswati.

Independent Foreign Service