ABIDJAN - A father in Ivory Coast was ordered to jail and fined on Wednesday after a court found him guilty for trying to arrange the forced marriage of his 11-year-old daughter.
His was the first trial of its kind in the west African nation, and the verdict was seen as an unprecedented step towards stamping out the illegal, but widespread, practice of child marriages.
The 37-year-old Ivory Coast man, a tailor who was not named to protect the identity of his girl, was sentenced to a year behind bars and a fine of 360,000 CFA francs (550 euros) - equivalent to six months of the country's minimum wage.
The man's family, furious at the verdict, declined to comment.
The man had argued that he did not know that marrying his daughter off to one of his cousins, aged 27, was against the law.
His plan was thwarted when the girl's school reported her absence from classes to a rights group that in turn notified police.
Officers discovered the girl wearing a veil during a marriage ceremony at which the groom was not present. They arrested the father - who said his daughter had agreed to be a bride - and charged him with the "forced and premature union" of his daughter.
The unprecedented case pitted two distant worlds in Ivory Coast against each other: one of entrenched tradition in often poor, rural, remote and heavily Muslim areas; and the other espousing modern legal notions against paedophilia and upholding human rights.
The convicted man's brother told AFP last week that Islam "recommends" such child marriages. "It says when a woman has her first menstrual period, she can marry. Our own mother was married at age nine," he said.
But Rosine Kone, the acting prosecutor in the case in the central city of Bouake, had responded to AFP that "tradition, morality and religion" were not sufficient justifications for forced or early marriages.
She said this case was brought to court "to send a strong message.... We must encourage people to denounce this sort of practice." Ivory Coast has some of the highest rates of such marriages. Twelve per cent of all girls are wed before their 15th birthday and 36 per cent before the age of 18, according to a report by the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, to be published shortly.
The United Nations has called for urgent action to end the practice observed in more than 40 countries - including 30 in Africa alone - where it affects more than 30 per cent of all girls.
According to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of more than 400 civil society organisations, around 15 million girls under 18 are caught up in such unions worldwide.