Head start: Social Science student Simphiwe Mthethwa, 18, became the University of KwaZulu-Natals youngest graduate in April. However, many other girls are deprived of an education through distorted cultural practices |such as ukuthwala, says the writer.

SA is a country rich with culture and custom, and although the constitution recognises that everyone has the right to give expression to and live in terms of their cultural and customary practices, those traditions and practices must be in line with the values of the constitution – including equality, dignity and freedom.

Startlingly, a distorted practice called ukuthwala intombi, involving the violent abduction, rape and forced marriage of girls particularly between the ages of nine and 18, under the pretence of the recognised customary practice of ukuthwala, has robbed girls of their childhood.

The practice of ukuthwala intombi has been reported in villages in the Eastern Cape, including Bizana, KwaCele, Flagstaff, and villages in KwaZulu-Natal, including Lusikisiki, Bergville, Loskop, and two villages in the Sisonke district.

Despite the assertions of traditional leaders that this is a recent phenomenon, there are reports of adult women having been abducted and forced into marriage as pubescent girls in the 1980s.

Media attention both domestically and internationally on the distorted practice for the past three years has increased and in some cases assigned the rationale behind the practice to the myth around HIV/Aids being curable through sex with a virgin.

Most often, though, the perpetrator is a migrant worker, returning to his rural homestead during holidays such as Easter and the festive season, to “catch” a young bride and ensure that the traditional leader allocates a piece of land for his new family.

It could also be an older man from the same village, probably old enough to be her grandfather. The migrant “groom” will leave the “bride” behind when he returns to his place of work in the city, together with their children.

She will have to care for the children, as well as her in-laws, as is custom.

Some traditional leaders rightly reject this abomination as criminal and an illegitimate practice. Yet there are some leaders and communities who support the distorted practice, ostensibly as culturally legitimate.

Many parents in grinding poverty believe that the economic value and social status attached to a married daughter legitimises the practice.

Yet it is well documented globally that early and forced marriages impact on the girls’ incidence of maternal and infant mortality; her vulnerability to contract HIV/Aids and sexually transmitted diseases; loss of educational and career opportunities as she drops out of school to tend the family, and immediate and long-term harmful effects on her psychological, emotional and physical welfare.

Our constitution protects her from maltreatment, neglect, abuse and degradation, and against slavery and forced labour.

It also guarantees her rights to family care, basic education, access to health care, sexual reproductive health and importantly equality and dignity. Her best interests are to be paramount. Forced marriage negates all of these rights and responsibilities.

Some interventions have made inroads. One successful initiative in the Eastern Cape is a shelter for girls who were forcibly married. The girls’ schooling is resumed and a safe environment created for her and her baby. Yet this results in the girl being ostracised from her village and family.

There has been a handful of successful criminal prosecutions of the perpetrator and the accomplices, as well as the parents who participate in the practice.

Various roundtable discussions and seminars have taken place at national level and task teams have been appointed at regional level. Where think-tanks have taken place, however, it has not sufficiently encouraged participation of rural women and girls and has had little effect in raising awareness, educating or changing the perceptions of the legitimacy and legality of the practice in the affected communities.

The SA Law Reform Commission has since 2010 promised to publish a discussion paper for law reform on the issue.

The commission, and the Commission for Gender Equality, have held seminars to consult at regional and community level.

Most of these interventions happen in silos, absent co-operative governance that would facilitate effective, short- and long-term solutions, as well as buy-in from the affected communities.

At community level, no concrete interventions have taken place to prevent the violent kidnapping and attendant consequences and to protect girls from being forced to be mothers and wives before they are ready and without their consent.

There remains a fundamental misunderstanding and ignorance of the criminal sanctions against forced and early marriage and the related activities (abduction, rape, forced labour and so on) and the sometimes irreversible socio-economic, psychological, educational and sexual-reproductive impact on the girl.

Embedded gender and social norms mean that even if a girl reports the “thwala”, the chances of obtaining help from traditional leaders, the police, social workers and teachers is low.

A real commitment is needed from stakeholders to integrate and co-ordinate efforts to eradicate ukuthwala intombi.

We call on the Departments of Justice and Constitutional Development, Social Development, Health, Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, and Education, as well as the Ministry of Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities, the SA Human Rights Commission and the Commission for Gender Equality to work together and find effective solutions to end this practice and ensure that no more childhoods are stolen.

All girls in SA deserve and have the right to be free from violence, and have the best opportunities for education and family life, and the choice whether or not to marry and have children.

Let us provide these opportunities and protect our children from violations to these rights and most importantly, allow girls to reach maturity and become women on an equal basis with others.