OPINION: Government and gender activists would need to work with traditional authorities to advocate for women’s rights and fight against gender-based violence, writes Bella Mkhabela.
According to Statistics South Africa’s director for education and child statistics, Dr Seble Worku, South Africa still records a high number of child marriages taking place across the country every year.
In 2021, there were 207 recorded child marriages, of which 188 were young girls and 19 were young boys. With rising economic instability facing the country, families are seeking other means of survival, and the clear victim of the struggle is young girls.
A number of these ceremonies are carried out in rural areas, usually by families or traditional authorities. This signals a grave need to focus resources and action on traditional structures and society.
The usual process would be to go after traditional societies, but that has not always created fast enough or effective enough change in traditional societies. Therefore, the government and activist groups need to start working with traditional authorities to advocate for women’s rights and against gender-based violence (GBV).
Traditional leaders support customary laws that have historically been oppressive to women, through practices such as child marriages, ukuthwala (abduction of women and girls and forced into marriage) and exclusion from owning land and property.
Most African traditional social organisations are male-centred and male-dominated. From the formation of the council to the succession plan passing through the male line.
According to Byrnes, even in the 1990s, in some rural areas of South Africa, for example, wives walk a few paces behind their husbands in keeping with traditional practices. This is true not only for African traditional societies but also for the religious communities in South Africa, such as the Christian and Muslim communities.
According to Byrnes, under the apartheid era, Afrikaner religious beliefs also included a strong emphasis on the biblical notion that women’s contributions to society should normally be approved by, or be on behalf of, men. However, traditional and religious leaders mean a great deal to the communities they represent. For many of these communities, the only interaction they will have with the government is through their traditional leaders.
Traditional and Religious leaders represent the moral code of communities and are the symbols of what is understood as acceptable and appropriate conduct in society. Traditional and religious leaders are not elected into public office by popular vote but through lineage and are thus in office for life. This makes them more trustworthy and reliable for communities that are suspicious of governmental organisation.
This is why traditional and religious leaders have the great potential to be key advocates for women’s rights and possibly end the epidemic of gender-based violence in society.
Traditional and religious leaders have a special role to play in the protection and empowerment of women. They have the best geographical access to the most vulnerable women in South Africa. Traditional and religious leaders mostly cater to women in rural areas, who are often situated far from essential services and support groups.
Traditional leaders figuratively and literally speak the language of their people; without the support of traditional leaders, it is significantly more difficult to get the people to buy into policies.
Bella Mkhabela is an intern at the Pan African Women’s Unit at the University of Johannesburg
*The views expressed do not necessarily the views of Independent Media or IOL