Under the guise of culture, young girls are increasingly being kidnapped, raped and forced into marriage, writes Nomboniso Gasa.
Johannesburg - The practice of ukuthwala has finally received attention from the media, civil society organisations and, to a limited extent, policymakers, especially the Department of Justice. This follows the sentencing of a man in the Western Cape who forcibly took a 14-year-old as his bride.
While it may be argued that action has come too late for many child brides in South Africa, we must at least acknowledge that law enforcement agents have acted.
This is important, especially in the light of what we have seen in the past 10 years, where girl children have been sacrificed at the altar of political expediency, in the name of culture. The recent revival of the practice, albeit in a distorted form, has been accompanied by untold violence and loss of life and childhood for many girls.
There are many factors that contribute to this distorted and abusive behaviour. These include increased violence against women in our communities, using children as a bargaining tool with the government, as we have seen in other areas such as education and at the time of matric examinations. There, parents threaten to withhold their children because the government has not heeded their calls.
The recent revival of ukuthwala suggests a society that is at war with itself. It magnifies the extent to which poor families, especially the girl child in that context, are neglected and dehumanised. Yet it is important to avoid simplistic explanations such as “poverty causes people to do desperate things”.
Ukuthwala refers to a practice of arranged marriages for girls who are deemed to be of marriageable age. This is done through public kidnapping of the girl, often accompanied by violence, without her knowledge or consent. More often than not, the girl does not even know the man who will be her husband.
There tends to be confusion between ukuthwala and other arrangements of marriage. These may include ukunxityiswa, which simply refers to a practice where young lovers may decide to elope to the home of the groom, to avoid complicated and protracted negotiations between the two families. As this involves consent and knowledge of both parties, strictly speaking it is not ukuthwala.
The fact is that insufficient attention has been paid to the plight of the girl child. This is even more difficult because those who are responsible for the abuse use the code of culture and custom to justify their actions. Even Contralesa took a long time before it admitted that the incidents seen in Lusikisiki are not acceptable cultural practices. Having reluctantly accepted that these are criminal acts, Contralesa, with the collusion of police, has not really taken concrete action against those who commit these crimes. The congress’s half-hearted condemnations expose the deep-seated contradictions in South African society.
The scars of the new violations of girl children come after those carried by generations of their older sisters and mothers. Taken together, it seems South Africa is on a destructive trajectory that gambles with the lives of women without regard.
I recall my earlier encounter with ukuthwala. Even though she was much older than the 13-year-olds “sold” into marriage, that experience was deeply scarring.
She was my playmate. Although we were neighbours, in many ways our worlds were different. Our mothers were determined to ensure the differences did not affect our friendship.
At the age of 4, I decided to start school, despite my age. This was our first real separation. My mother agreed that I should start on condition that I taught my friend everything I learnt at school. This was a deal-breaker. If I slacked on this, she threatened to hold me back from school. You see, my friend came from a family of red ochre people. Her parents did not believe she needed education. What she needed was to muster household chores, the collection of firewood, plastering the rondavels with mud and using lime for colouring. Like me, she was small for these tasks.
In exchange for lessons I gave her, like the alphabet, spelling and writing her name, she taught me these other skills. I, too, wanted to be a woman. Never mind that my parents thought I was a child. On weekends, we went up to the hills and collected firewood. I had my own bundle, proudly carried on my head without balancing it with my hands. When we came closer to home, our mothers and other adult women ululated – the girls were going to be fine women and useful to their husbands later in life.
Away from the prying eyes of our parents, she taught me the tricks of survival in the streets. Mainly, stick fighting. She was a champion stick fighter. She knew about balancing your feet, hitting the strategic parts, such as shoulders and taking the opponent by surprise. I hear her patient words today as if they were whispered yesterday. “Open your eyes, Nomboniso. Open your eyes. Stare them down. Hold your stick like this... no, no, there’s no point hitting the thigh. Go for the right shoulder... like this.”
Every December, we had fun following the man who was taking a young woman for marriage. We knew the song and followed the direction from whence it came.
“Noyongo na, noyongo na,” the men sang. I did not know then that the song was to drown out the screams of the young woman. We did not know that the beatings we saw were to control the girl who was resisting being forced into marriage. Ukuthwala was something that happened to other people. It could never happen to us.
Then, suddenly, it struck home. My friend was 17 years old. I saw the men who went to her homestead and sat next to the kraal. Somehow, I thought they could not be there for her. There had to be another reason. Alas, the negotiations were for her marriage. Nobody asked her whether she knew the man. No one was interested in her opinion about marriage. She was 17. She was technically no longer a girl. She was ripe and ready for marriage.
On the agreed day, she was sent to the river to fetch water. On the way there, men emerged from nowhere and grabbed her. My friend was strong. She fought the men. I flung my water bucket at the men and hit wherever it landed. One of them simply pushed me and I landed flat on my back. They grabbed my friend who was kicking and biting them. They overpowered her. Realising she was going to put up a strong fight, one of them hoisted her and lifted her over his shoulders, like a sack of maize.
That is what ukuthwala means. To be forcibly taken or dragged like a sack heavy with its contents. She screamed and even shouted obscenities. The man sang “Noyongo na, noyongo na.”
Ukuthwala is an old practice which involves an arranged marriage between two families or abduction and rape to force the hand of a reluctant family. More often than not, the mother is not aware of this agreement. The girl is completely in the dark.
She is often sent to a man she does not know, usually older than her. She only discovers who the husband is when she arrives at her home of marriage. That is also usually the first night during which the marriage will be consummated, mostly without her consent.
In many parts of the country, including the Eastern Cape, the practice had more or less petered out for 30 years. Its revival in the 2000s caught South Africa by surprise. What could have led to this? The answers are as simple as they are complicated. In the first place, given the age of the children who are forced into these marriages, it is clear we are dealing with a different issue. It is violence against the girl child and a dehumanising experience performed under the guise of culture.
Looking back at the life of my childhood friend, I can see what that early encounter did to her life and spirit. Overnight, she was someone’s wife, owned by him to do as he pleased with her. When she managed her first escape to her home, where there was once light, her eyes were full of dull sadness.
Years later, she managed to escape from the marriage. She had two children. Until she could pay back the lobolo, she was an outlaw in her own village and family. It took her 10 years to get the money together and once she did, she sent it back to the family.
The girl children who are forced into these marriages today are in greater danger than those before them. They bear children long before their bodies are ready and in quick succession. For the first time in South Africa, cervical fistula occurs in alarming numbers. Many contract HIV from their first sexual encounter with the “husbands”.
The sentencing last week to 22 years in prison of Cape Town man Mvumeleni Jezile, 32, who abducted and raped a 14-year-old girl, has come too late for many of them. Yet, even so, it sends strong signals that crimes against other human beings will not tolerated. Hopefully, the Department of Justice will reflect on how it has failed South Africa’s girl children. Hopefully, the practice that has left so many girls and their families without hope and protection is going to come to an end.
Hopefully, I say.
One never knows with the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development.
* Gasa is a researcher, strategist and analyst on gender, politics and cultural issues. She is a research associate at the Centre for Law, Faculty of Law, UCT.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.