A woman protests against underage marriage. File picture: Sunday Alamba/AP

Johannesburg - Parents in Orange Farm are seeking justice for a pupil with a mental disability who was raped and married off to the person who allegedly sexually assaulted her when she was just 15-years-old.

SA Human Rights Commission spokesperson Gushwell Brooks on Tuesday confirmed that the teenager was allegedly raped and that the case was dropped after she was allegedly forced into a customary union with her attacker.

Brooks said: “It is our information that the accused was dismissed from the centre and was criminally charged with the sexual assault.

“These charges were subsequently dropped as the accused and the victim have entered into a customary union.”

Parents have accused the SAHRC of failing to deal effectively with the abuse and child marriage at the school after the community opened the case with them in 2012.

Elizabeth Ramatekoa, chairperson of Sidinga Uthando Self-help Group - a support group for parents with children with disabilities in Orange Farm - said that when the case first came to their attention, the mother wanted to open a criminal case against the alleged rapist.

The girl had allegedly been raped at a daycare centre for children with disabilities.

“After a while, the parent said the rape never happened and that the man was going to marry the girl, and she withdrew the criminal case. We realised that though the family didn’t want to pursue the case anymore, the Human Rights Commission can assist us by looking into the conditions in which the children lived.”

The community decided to open the case to investigate the child marriage and abuse because the criminal matter had been withdrawn. The child has since disappeared from the community.

Another woman, who has a son with autism, said: “We asked the Human Rights Commission to look into whether any more children were being abused, but instead of helping us, they just came back to us and said the matter was resolved.

“When they say resolved, what had they done, because we were unaware of what they did? Did the investigators visit the centre? Another thing is that we don’t know where the child is. Is she still with the man? How is her life now?” she asked.

Statistics South Africa’s 2016 Community Survey indicates that more than 91000 girls in South Africa aged between 12 and 17 are married, divorced, separated, widowed or living with a partner as husband and wife. KwaZulu-Natal ranks the highest with 25205 girls and Gauteng second with 15929.

Last month, the parents and non-governmental organisation Afrika Tikkun protested outside the SAHRC offices demanding that the case reopened. The commission agreed to allow for the appeal, but lawyer Lindsay Henson from Lawyers Against Abuse said the commission didn’t give them any indication when the case will be completed.

“There is no sense of urgency even when the most vulnerable children have been abused. When we initially asked them to investigate in 2013, it took them three years to do so, and then tell us that the conditions are satisfactory.”

Brooks confirmed that the community is appealing.

Professor Deirdre Byrne, Chairperson of the Unisa-Africa Girl Development Programme, said: “Economic inequalities that besiege our society lead to poor families who don’t have the resources to feed all their children ‘selling’ their under-age daughters to lascivious men.”

Ramatekoa said child marriage was not the only case of abuse they were aware of, but it was hard to investigate them because parents were unwilling to come forward about their children’s stories.

“It is hard to take care of a child with disabilities. When parents are offered money, sometimes they keep the issue quiet. Sometimes it is also because they don’t want more stigma,” she said.

The Star