Durban - The problem of ukuthwala is so great that last Thursday the KwaZulu-Natal government launched a multi-disciplinary approach in 11 districts of the province to stop the practice.
Making it more difficult to tackle the problem is that families “settle” by accepting lobola and police do not ensure offenders are prosecuted.
Janine Hicks, a member of the KZN Commission for Gender Equality, said investigations were under way into how police handled such matters.
Although complaints of ukuthwala were made to the police, the cases were withdrawn when families agreed on a lobola “settlement”, she said.
“This is tragic because no one thinks about the girl, just as long as the adults come to an agreement.
“We are trying to get police not to withdraw these cases as we want to see those involved get prosecuted.”
In areas like Ixopo, Bergville, Umzimkhulu and the Eastern Cape, ukuthwala was widely practised.
“In Ixopo there was a time when 15 cases were opened at the police station, but none of them made it to prosecution and this a concern,” Hicks said.
There were also health concerns, including HIV, around the practice.
“Our health facilities, especially public health, should be asking the right questions when they see young girls coming in pregnant because this is another way we can try to stop the abuse.”
Hicks said community leaders needed to speak out against the violation of young girls.
The MEC for Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Nomusa Dube, said the practice was coming under scrutiny as there were mounting revelations that girls as young as 17 were becoming infected with HIV after being forced into marriage through ukuthwala.
“As the provincial government of KwaZulu-Natal, we have begun a dialogue that involves the Commission for Gender Equality, traditional leaders, government, academia, men and women of the cloth, legal fundis, and the police, among many stakeholders,” Dube said.
These engagements officially began last Thursday and were to take place in all 11 districts of the province.
Traditional leaders were to engage their communities as a guard against the abuse of customs and traditions by people who were driven by a lust for young girls.
“We have come to realise that girls younger than 18 are being kidnapped, forced to quit school and forced into marriage where they get impregnated and infected with HIV,” Dube said.
The Children’s Act said young girls could not be forced into marriage, even if there was consent.
“But certain lustful adult men are hiding under the custom of ukuthwala to rape these girls,” Dube said.
“Amakhosi have agreed to work with the government and other stakeholders to educate the communities so there is a collective campaign to isolate this criminal and dirty element from society.”
The KZN Director of Public Prosecutions, Moipone Noko, said although the National Prosecuting Authority respected tradition, it was opposed to underage girls being married off.
Noko said the NPA respected the practice if the woman was someone of legal age who consented to being married in this manner.
“What we do not tolerate is underage children being made part of this tradition. In these cases we will charge for abduction, kidnapping, human trafficking and statutory rape. When we do charge it will be all the adults involved in each case.”
Provincial police spokesman Captain Thulani Zwane said although he could not provide statistics directly, he could confirm there had been cases of abduction relating to ukuthwala.
“Police, however, cannot withdraw those cases, even if the victim wants the case to be withdrawn.
“We can still take the matter to court.”
Romantic origins cruelly distorted
According to Nomagugu Ngobese, the head of the Nomkhubulwane Culture and Youth Development Organisation, the practice of ukuthwala goes back to the days when girls, whose parents did not approve of their boyfriends, arranged to be abducted so that the families would be forced to allow their marriage.
She said this was to ensure that parents would be forced to accept the relationship and accept the lobola from the unwanted boyfriend, and the woman would then marry the man of her dreams, she said.
Ngobese said it was now evident that the original purpose was based on a romantic, idealistic notion of two people yearning to be together and defying society and family.
“The practice has its roots in cultural tradition, but the purpose has clearly been distorted from its original manifestation.
“In present times, we are seeing ukuthwala being used to legitimise and validate criminal abduction and the infliction of gender-based violence against minor girl children,” she explained.
She said the manner in which ukuthwala was being applied was without a girl’s consent and had a significant impact on her education, health and physical well-being.
“This practice is tantamount to forced marriage, which is illegal. Forced marriage also falls under the category of exploitation in the definition of human trafficking,” she said.
In terms of international law and in accordance with the human rights discourse set by the UN, Ngobese said like forced marriages in other parts of the world such as the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe, the practice of ukuthwala was being used to perpetrate gender-based crimes.
“These crimes can also certainly be classified as human trafficking,” she said.