A woman takes part in a protest against the practice of ukuthuwala, in which underage women can be force into marriage.
While her peers were getting an education and dreaming about their futures, a teenage girl was married at 15 and raising children with a man old enough to be her grandfather.

This week, the Weekend Argus spoke to 35-year-old Lesedi Nthabeleng Moiloa, who was sold into marriage two decades ago.

The interview comes against the backdrop of the trial of Ayanda Vellem, Nokuzo Mtya, Thozama Fukula and Neliswa Fukulu at the Cape Town Regional Court in which they face multiple charges, including trafficking a 16-year-old girl from Queenstown to Cape Town for marriage.

The accused face charges of abduction, trafficking persons for sexual purposes and contravening the Customary Marriages Act.

Vellem faces additional charges of rape and assault.

The State alleges that in May 2012, the accused abducted the 16-year-old from her home in the Eastern Cape for marriage with a 25-year-old man.

Proceedings were conducted in camera this week as defence lawyers cross-examined the complainant.

For Moiloa, who never got to face her abductors in court, life after being forced into marriage has been about healing.

“I grew up in Lesotho with my parents. At the age of 10, I moved to South Africa to live with my aunt in Bloemfontein to further my education.”

“Everything was okay until my aunt’s husband left the family and stopped contributing to the household. My aunt was unemployed, so suddenly money became a problem.

“Just before my 15th birthday, my aunt told me I was going to leave school and move to Cape Town but she never explained what I would be doing here. I was taken to Gugulethu and told that this was going to be my new home as a married woman.

“When the people who I came with got up to leave, I started crying and begging for them not to leave me there.”

Lesedi said she met her husband that evening and discovered he was old enough to be her grandfather.

“That night he slept with me and I remember crying and asking him to stop and that is the first time he hit me for making too much noise.

“The next morning, a 2-year-old child and an 8-year-old were shown to me and I was told that they were my children and I had to look after them. I later learnt they were children from his previous wife, who had died,” she said.

“I had to cook, clean, do the washing and look after these children and be a wife in the evening. I had no phone, no way to contact my family and I was not allowed out of the house, so I had no friends.

“This went on for five years until he died and I finally managed to run away... for the first time in five years I stepped out of that yard and I just ran.

“I ended up living on the streets for a while, where I found out I was pregnant... I met some incredible people at shelters who took me in. I had my child while going to school and now I have made a new life.

“I have not spoken to my family since that day. I don’t know what they think happened to me, but I regard myself as an orphan.

“I have made peace with my past. Although the people who did this to me never got arrested, I believe they will be dealt with. What angers me is whenever I read that this still happens to young girls.”

Patric Solomons of Molo Songololo said although the law makes it illegal for people to engage in forced marriages, the practice still exists in rural communities, where young girls are sold into marriages with older men.

“Although ukuthuwala is regarded as an old tradition, some people try to revive it. It often comes out when an older man is found out to be living with a younger woman and then claims they are married under customary law, in order to hide their crimes.

“Children, and that is anyone under the age of 18, are often coerced to enter into such marriages because there is a benefit involved for either the relative or person engaged in the negotiations to trade this child to an older person.

“South Africa falls short of legislation that protects women when they enter into marriages. It allows for children to be married at a certain age but no proper monitoring of the circumstances under which said marriage was entered into.”

The Marriage Act states that no boy under 18 or girl under 16 “shall be capable of contracting a valid marriage except with the written permission of the minister”.

As a means of addressing the practice of ukuthuwala, the South African Reform Commission was mandated to investigate. 

Commission spokesperson Maite Modiba said a draft report has been compiled and sent to the review committee before it is forwarded to the minister of justice for approval.

“We thought it was a practice that was no longer relevant... but, surprisingly, it still happens,” she said.

“Ukuthuwala itself is not illegal; the illegal element comes in when it involves under-age children and there is no consent. In its original form, ukuthuwala involves two parties who are in agreement with a marriage... then the father of the bride-to-be doesn’t approve of the partner... and the girl is taken away from the family and married off. But we found that there are those who commit crimes and hide under the practice of ukuthuwala.”

Weekend Argus