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It’s easy to feel strongly about forced marriage; what isn’t easy is understanding why it happens, writes Melanie Hamman Doucakis.
Johannesburg - It’s easy to have strong feelings about forced marriage, particularly if those being forced into marriage are still children; what isn’t easy, however, is understanding the complexity and nuances of why and how something like this happens.
Ukuthwala, which is practised in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, can be summarised as the abduction of a girl or young woman by a man and his friends, or family, with the purpose of convincing, forcing or coercing her to marry him. Her family may be party to her thwala, or they may know nothing about it. In some instances, it is initiated by the pair themselves in order to get their parents to consent to their marriage.
There have been increasing reports about ukuthwala in the media over the past few years, but reporting on the issue seemed to leave many questions unanswered, which is part of what prompted Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) to undertake a project on it.
The photographic exhibition The Silence Beyond the River: Encounters with the lives of ukuthwala is the culmination of this project. It provides a glimpse into the rural reality of those living in some of the most isolated parts of the Eastern Cape. It is a platform for individual stories to be heard and acknowledged. It also aims to challenge visitors to the exhibition to see beyond their own cultural understandings.
A major component of the project was interviewing various community members, including working with children, over the course of four months to learn about their perspectives on the practice and where and how these perspectives were, or weren’t, changed. Most of those interviewed said that they had heard about the issue in the media, with one in two saying that media reports changed their perspective on it.
Ukuthwala does not happen in isolation or in a vacuum devoid of complex contributing factors. The interviews revealed that the contexts in which ukuthwala occurs possess numerous social challenges. One of these notable challenges is the increasing rate of teenage pregnancies, which frequently lead to the burden of care for children born outside of marriage landing on the shoulders of elderly parents or grandparents.
For many people in rural communities, ukuthwala is perceived as providing a solution. It is seen as appropriate that girls get married, the younger the better, so that they will have a husband to care for their children.
In presenting these stories, the MMA is not advocating child marriage, but we understand the importance of highlighting the context in which such things take place in our country.
All children have the right to education and to have freedom to make their own choices and participate in decisions that affect them. No young girl or woman should be forced into marriage.
However, with ukuthwala being perceived as a solution to significantly difficult cultural and economic issues, where no others seem to be manifesting, we have to ask some serious questions in order to provide viable and sustainable alternative solutions.
It is also not a matter of bulldozing other cultures, through the promotion of another, whether practices are deemed as “custom” or are now manifesting in ways that are a violation of culture. This, in many ways, is what was done by colonialists and the apartheid government in previous generations, and which caused societal fragmentation and a loss of cultural continuity that contributed to the practice manifesting nowadays in ways that experts say it was never meant to.
In exposing the complexity of the context surrounding ukuthwala, MMA hopes the media will be able to offer a more nuanced picture to stimulate informed debate and solution creation.
* The Silence Beyond the River: Encounters with the lives of ukuthwala exhibit opened yesterday at The Bailey Gallery, Arts on Main, 245 Main Street in Joburg. It runs until November 15.
** Melanie Hamman Doucakis is an independent photography professional who was worked on a number of ukuthwala articles.
*** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers