File picture: Sunday Alamba/AP
Cape Town - Maria Mokoena is 86 years old, but she still has vivid memories of being forced to marry a man she was not in love with.

“At the time we were not dating. He came with his family to ask for ‘mohope wa metsi’ (my hand in marriage). Both sets of parents made agreements without consulting me. I was told he would marry me and I couldn’t refuse because my parents would reprimand me.

“I lived with him, but I didn’t love him. When I protested to my mother that he was ugly, she would say that as long as he took care of me, we would be fine.

“I could have achieved a lot in life if it was not for that forced marriage. I had big plans,” said a visibly upset Mokoena.

Although the culture of forced marriages, or ukuthwala, is regarded as outdated, some communities today still force young girls into marriage, usually with older men.

Last week, the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) told the portfolio committee on social development in Parliament that 91000 underage children as young as 14 have been forced into marriage in South Africa. The CGE said the number was highest in KwaZulu-Natal at 25000, followed by Gauteng at 15000 and the Eastern Cape with 9000.

The Centre for Child Law’s 2015 report by Unicef shows that child marriage is a problem across Africa. In West and Central Africa, 42% of females are married as children, in sub-Saharan Africa it’s 40%, and in East and southern Africa child marriage affects 37% of girls.

The centre’s deputy director, Karabo Ozah, said child marriages proliferated amid poverty, tradition and gender inequality. “In South Africa we need, as a start, to make the age of consent to marriage 18 without exceptions.

“There is also a need to educate communities on the harmful effects of child marriages and empower girls to have agency in relation to their lives.

“If kidnapping for marriage (ukuthwala), abuse, rape, sexual assault or any other crime takes place, the law must take its course. The Children’s Act, Sexual Offences Act and Trafficking Act have provisions for prosecutions,” said Ozah.

Tarisai Nyamweda, a spokesperson for NGO Gender Links, said child marriage was both abuse and a crime as it denied children their rights. “We need a shift in mindset to see the girl child as of equal importance to the boy and to respect children’s rights.

“Child marriage is in essence an abuse of children. It denies their right to education, to sexual reproductive health, to a future in which they make their own decisions and a right to economic opportunities.”

Nyamweda said the government needed to educate society on girls’ rights.

Gender Links also expressed disappointment that religious and cultural practices that did not have a place in the new dispensation still happened.

“More effort is needed from the government down to family structures to help eradicate this harmful practice.

“We have committed to sustainable development goal five, which touches on the elimination of all harmful practices, such as child marriage, early and forced marriage, and also the Southern African Development Community protocol on gender and development.

“We need to start seeing these instruments implemented,” Nyamweda said.

Department of Traditional Affairs spokesperson Legadima Leso said 18 was the minimum age for a valid marriage in the South African Marriage Act. “Traditional leaders, Houses of Traditional Leaders and cultural organisations must form a partnership to educate people that ukuthwala is not a basis for marriage. Love and agreement are.”

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