File photo: A woman protests against underage marriage in Lagos, Nigeria. Picture: AP

South Africa has one of the world’s strongest constitutions, so why are young girls sold into a life of abuse and violence, asks Marchelle Abrahams.

The going rate for a child bride in South Africa can be anything from R4 000 and upwards. It’s not much, but for many it can feed a family for a few months.

The Community Survey 2016 results released by Statistics South Africa shows that more than 91000 girls in South Africa between the ages of 12 and 17 are married, divorced, separated, widowed or living with a partner as husband and wife.

The stats paint a grim picture, with KwaZulu-Natal leading the way with more than 25000 young girls in under-age marriages.

Professor Deirdre Byrne is chairperson of the Unisa-Africa Girl Development Programme, which plans to promote girls’ rights and highlight gender inequalities.

Aged between 12 and 17, these girls are often sold by their families and regarded as sources of income.

“Although the South African stats are lower compared to the rest of Africa, the fact that child brides are a reality in South Africa, a country with one of the world’s best constitutions, is frightening,” said Byrne.

According to the constitution, the legal age for marriage is 18 years. The law puts restrictions on marriages involving minors - they require the consent of a parent, guardian or commissioner of welfare.

Despite the bureaucratic obstacles, the UN Children’s Fund Unicef found in a 2015 study that more than one in three African girls (more than 40million) entered into marriage or union before age 15.

The reality of the situation is that many parents give away their daughters willingly and with full consent.

“Patriarchy reinforced by cultural beliefs and practices values the life of a son far higher than that of a daughter due to the status of a boy carrying the family name, continuing the family business and contributing financially to the family home,” said Byrne.

In such instances, girls are rather seen as a drain on resources and the prospects of some sort of future for these are girls are grim. Then there is also the controversial practice of ukuthwala.

The “traditional custom” is a form of abduction that involves kidnapping a girl or a young woman with the intention of compelling her family to agree into marriage.

Jezile case study

In 2010, Mvumeleni Jezile reportedly left Cape Town and made his way to the Eastern Cape in search of a wife.

He bought a 14-year-old girl for R8000 and forced her into customary marriage. He abducted, raped and beat her. After many escape attempts, she went to the police and Jezile was convicted in the Western Cape High Court of rape, human trafficking and assault in 2013 and sentenced to 22 years in jail.

He appealed the convictions, saying his transgressions were part of the customary marriage of ukuthwala and he had acted according to customary law. He remains in prison.

When tradition and constitution collide

In its pure form, ukuthwala was consensual and involved no violence. The woman remained with the bridegroom’s female family members until after the marriage ceremony.

Javu Baloyi, spokesperson for the Commission for Gender Equality, painted a different picture in current circumstances.

“We are not a cultural or religious state. We are a constitutional state and the phenomenon of marrying young children is wrong. It is constitutionally wrong.”

He said, through research and interactions with various sectors of society, it had become clear that those who took part in negotiating lobolo on behalf of their children were using the old cultural practice for selfish reasons.

For this very reason, the commission has called on parents or guardians who negotiate dowry for their minor children to be arrested.

“There is quite a strong view that such practices do not happen in peri-urban or urban areas across the country and that people there are not affected by this notion. But people in these regions have cultural beliefs they bring with them,” he said.

The cycle continues

Girls Not Brides is a global partnership committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfil their potential.

According to the organisation,15million girls are married before the age of 18 each year.

Child brides are often isolated, with their freedom curtailed, said Girls Not Brides.

“Girls frequently feel disempowered and are deprived of their fundamental rights to health, education and safety.

“But let us not forget that they are mere children when forced into marriage - not physically or emotionally ready to become wives and mothers.

“They are also at greater risk of experiencing complications in pregnancy and childbirth, contracting HIV/Aids and suffering domestic violence,” the group said.

The #AfricaGirlsCan campaign

“The only vehicle for decreasing the number of child brides is through education. These appalling statistics only highlight the need for placing girls’ education at the top of the agenda and the relevance of launching the Africa Girl Development Programme programme,” said Byrne.

The #AfricaGirlsCan campaign aims to encourage dialogue on the importance of African girls’ rights to equal education, but also to create opportunities for change.

Byrne said it was vital to keep girls in school to break the cycle of poverty, abuse and child marriages. “Marrying young affects a girl’s education and one third of developing countries have not achieved gender parity in primary education.”

The campaign is a three-year strategic programme aimed at supporting the commitment made by various African governments, girl child development advocates and the 2030 Sustainability Development Agenda.

Useful links:

Join the #AfricaGirlsCan conversation on Twitter

TEARS Foundation: www.tears.co.za/

Girls Not Brides: www.girlsnotbrides.org