Slavery, long abolished under international law, left a devastating imprint on
Africa. However, enslavement of women through forced marriages remains
a common phenomenon in many African states. These African states share
the common feature of legal pluralism where traditional legal systems continue
to be observed alongside national laws in which slavery is outlawed.
Where traditional practices condone the marriage of underage girls who
are legally unable to consent, the questioning of age-old accepted forms
of marriage can generate strong reactions. This article traces the position
of forced and child marriages in international law, and investigates how
legality becomes a moveable target when legal systems exist in parallel.
Despite international and African Union conventions on slavery and human
rights declaring that marriages not based on the full and free consent
of both parties are considered a violation of human rights and a form of
slavery, these practices persist. These instruments are assessed to gauge
the level of conformity (or variance) of African state practice where forced
marriages commonly occur. Importantly, the reasons behind noncompliance
and the impact of legal pluralism are explored in African states where
forced marriages commonly occur.