Of the world's 1.1 billion girls, 22 million are already married. File picture: AFP

For 16 days of activism to end violence against women and children, Independent Media will bring you the harrowing true stories behind the statistics. Please Don’t Look Away.

This is * Zanele’s story.

Cape Town - * Zanele always dreamed of finding her soul-mate and living in a lovely home with their children.

What she got instead was far from it.

Zanele, who told her story on condition of anonymity, explained in graphic detail how she was forced into a marriage with a stranger, when she was abducted and taken to another homestead in rural KwaZulu-Natal.

“At the new homestead, I saw many men of different ages, but didn't know which one of them will be my new husband. At last I found him. He was old and had one eye. I was 15 years old and he was 34 years old. He showed me he didn't love me and abused me,” she said.

At night, while she was sleeping with her husband in their rondavel, men would wait to hear if they had intercourse.

“If they did not hear anything, they would knock on the door and my husband would let them in. If I haven’t had sex with him, they would beat me up and hold me while he rapes me. Then one of the other men would rape me to show my husband how to have sex with me. Thereafter, my husband would have sex with me,” she said.

She said she endured the pain and returned to her parents to share her experiences, only to be told that she had to return to her abductor.

A month after giving birth, she refused to have intercourse with her abductor and he beat her until her leg broke. She escaped and never returned after she was admitted to hospital.

Zanele is not alone. She was among a group of 150 women who took part in a comprehensive study into abductions, rape and forced marriage where it was done under the guise of Ukuthwala.

The study was carried out by the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL) in 2014.

The study covered the Free State, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo and interviewed hundreds of girls and women who were forced into marriage.

The women were abducted and rape under guise of the traditional marriage custom of Ukuthwala, which is seen as an alternative path to marriage. In its original benign form, it's the practice where a young woman is abducted or waylaid through the use of force for purposes of marriage, with her consent. In the abuse of the traditional practice, the girl or woman does not consent.

According to ancient customs, the basic principle of Ukuthwala would involve a couple agreeing to their union. The practice is considered a last resort or become the result of a breakdown in lobola negotiations. The women would be taken by the men and his friends to his home, while the woman would pretend to be reluctant to come along to maintain her dignity.

However, the CRL Rights Commission in its comprehensive study had outlined that criminal elements partake in criminal activities under the guise of this ancient practice to kidnap, rape and force girls as young as 12 to be their wives.

Another woman who was interviewed in the study said: "They pin you to the floor, spread your legs in order for you to be raped by the abductor. Between three and 15 people accompany the abductor. The minute you get there, you are raped. Once the rape is over, you have no choice and you can not return home.

You are forced to be with him. Even the man is beaten up when the men try to show him how to sleep with the woman. In case he is a bit resistant, they beat him up to show him how to do the act. Sometimes, another man will show the abductor how to rape the woman while the men hold her down, after which the abductor rapes her,” she said.

The CLR Rights Commission report explained that it became clear the two most affected provinces were the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal where abductions were prevalent.

“These abductions have become more vicious and extreme as the girls are taken to the mountains where they cannot run away. These abductions cannot be confused with Ukuthwala, as all other cultural processes that lead to marriage are not followed.

“It is of great importance to highlight the fact that there have been very few prosecutions of a crime that is quite rife...It is also clear that the people who abduct girls know what they are doing is not Ukuthwala,” the report read.

The report found that the most important step - which is consent - was completely eliminated as both the abductor and the parents know that the girl would never agree to the continuation of the lobola negotiations.

It called for the stricter implementation of child protection measures and the swift prosecution of the perpetrators, among others.

* Zanele is not her real name.

Here to help:

At Rape Crisis Center we have a vision of a South Africa in which women are safe in their communities and where the criminal justice system supports and empowers rape survivors and
acts as a deterrent to rapists. Our mission is to promote safety in communities, to reduce the trauma experienced by rape survivors, to empower women, to promote gender equality, to strengthen the criminal justice system and to work actively to address flaws in legislation.

We plan to achieve this through coordinated action between our three main programmes: the Road to Justice, the Road to Recovery and Making Change. Our programme strategy is supported by an advancement strategy.

The Road to Justice seeks improved services to rape survivors both prior to entering and within the Criminal Justice System in order to minimise secondary victimisation and increase the effectiveness of trials so that reporting of rape increases and conviction rates improve. 

Special projects within this area of work include a 24 hour helpline, partnerships with the National Prosecuting Authority’s Thuthuzela Care Centres, which are one-stop multidisciplinary centres for rape, domestic violence and child abuse and our Court Support Programme.

The Road to Recovery seeks improved services to rape survivors in communities preventing extended psychological trauma, reducing post traumatic stress and promoting post-traumatic growth in order to restore women’s sense of personal agency, heal the social fabric and build social capital.

Special projects include a telephone counselling service, face-to- face counselling for rape survivors and families and support groups for rape survivors.

Making Change involves community-driven actions and interventions to challenge the drivers of rape in communities and address gaps in legislation and the poor implementation of laws. Special projects include community education, social mobilisation, peer education programmes for school learners, coalition building for national advocacy campaigns and the Speak Out Project for survivors wanting to speak publicly about their experiences.

A fourth element is our Organisational Development and Advancement strategy, which includes a financial plan, a fundraising strategy, a communications strategy and a human resource plan.

Each of these aims is implemented through our longstanding counselling, training and advocacy service, thus combining deterrent, preventive and restorative interventions into a comprehensive strategy.

How you can help Rape Crisis.

* Make a monthly donation or leave money to Rape Crisis in your will.

* Take part in or organise your own fund-raising events for us.

* Complete a counselling or facilitator course run by Rape Crisis.

* Don't look away.

You can contact Rape Crisis on www.rapecrisis.org.za. Physical address: 23 Trill Road, Observatory, tel: 021 447 1467 or their 24 hr crisis line: 021 4479762.