Our daughters enslaved

2013-06-23 14:00

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Ukuthwala in 21st-century SA

In 21st-century South Africa, young girls are still being plucked out of their communities, their schools and their homes, to be made child brides, all in the name of culture.

And another Youth Day has come and gone, when South Africa ­remembered the courage of the youth of decades past, and celebrated the freedom and opportunities the youth have today.

This freedom implies hope, but in some pockets of rural South Africa, this freedom and this hope do not exist.

Ukuthwala is the abduction of a girl or young woman by a man and/or his peers with the objective of coercing her family to agree to her hand in marriage.

But ukuthwala can also be a means for a young couple – fearing the woman’s parents will object to the marriage – to compel her family to consent to the marriage.

In the former type of ukuthwala, the family of the girl may or may not have prior knowledge of the abduction.

Often, the man’s family has already asked the girl’s father or male family members, and consent has been given. Her family sends her on an errand, having planned the exact location from which to have their daughter snatched.

Whether or not her family is embroiled in the thwala, the girl is never told. As a result, she hangs on to the hope that her family will never consent to the marriage and will come to her rescue.

This is exactly what Nomathemba* believed when she was accosted by three young men on her way home from an errand in 2001. She was 15.

“They grabbed me and said: ‘We are taking you to make you a wife.’ My cousin cried, but I didn’t, because I knew my family would fetch me. That’s why I didn’t bother fighting them.”

So confident was Nomathemba in her family rescuing her that she wasn’t even brought to tears when, as is custom, bridal clothes were put on her and she was made to sit behind the door of the main hut.

She refused their dinner and, unable to sleep, spent that night sitting on the floor of the mud hut. In the morning, the man’s family sent word to her family requesting lobola negotiations to commence.

“I heard my family had come and gone, but I didn’t see them. That is when I started crying, knowing full well it meant I was not going home. I was told everything had been prearranged with my family and lobola negotiations had been concluded. I still didn’t know who my husband was, until he arrived a week later from Johannesburg. By the time my brothers came to collect the lobola cattle a month later, I had stopped crying and had resigned myself to my fate.”

Nomathemba was about to start Grade 7 when the thwala happened. (It is not unusual for children in some parts of rural Transkei to start school much later than their urban and peri-urban counterparts.)

“I planned to finish matric and get a job. When I first got married, I wanted to go back to school, but I gave up on that a long time ago. I knew thwala happened, but I never thought it would happen to me.”

Her casual-builder husband, who was 24 when he took her as a wife, never went to school.

“We mainly depend on a family member who is the breadwinner. And the children’s government grants also help.”

Nomathemba’s case is not an isolated incident. In September 2012, 17-year-old Nobandile’s* four abductors frogmarched her to her intended husband’s home, mistaking the instructions to “go and see her” for “go and get her”.

“The men taunted me along the way, saying: ‘Today we are going to make you a wife. You will sleep at our house and tomorrow morning you will make us some tea.’ I cried the whole way.”

The next morning, her two male cousins fetched her and took her home. She thought the trauma was over. Three months later, coming back from accompanying her sister to the taxi stop, the same four men pounced again, initially mistaking one of Nobandile’s cousins for her.

She took the opportunity to flee, but they caught up with her and led her down the same path as before. While most family-sanctioned thwala incidents exclude the girl’s mother, Nobandile’s mother and older sister were in on it, though her mother still denies this.

“I hurled insults at them the whole way, but they just laughed. I spent a whole week there before my family came. I didn’t understand why they were taking so long to fetch me. I whiled away the days, trying to find an escape, but there wasn’t one. When they eventually came, they told me they were

leaving me behind. I burst into tears and followed them to the gate, but they brought me back to the hut. I cried until I couldn’t cry any more.”

Like Nomathemba, Nobandile was well aware that ukuthwala happened in her community, “but I always told myself if it happened to me I would go back home. Everybody in my family knew I didn’t ever want to get married. My father, who died two years ago, used to tell me I didn’t have to get married.

My mother and I used to point out the plot where I was going to build my house.

I was determined to study hard, become a doctor and look after myself and my family,” says the 18-year-old, who was abducted before completing Grade 8.

Her father-in-law assured her she would go back to school in 2014, but he’s been quiet on the subject lately. Her husband, who got only as far as Grade 5, says there is no way she is going back to school.

Entire communities are negatively affected by ukuthwala, by denying these girls an education. To paraphrase a 2009 article published by the department of justice and social development: A community’s development depends on its people’s level of health, knowledge and education, skills and the resources controlled by those people.

Girls and women form part of the critical human capital that families and communities rely on for their development.

The article further highlights a proven link between lack of education, underdevelopment and poverty. With most ukuthwala victims coming from poor families, by denying them education, their poverty is intensified, their children are born poor – and the cycle continues.

While Youth Day speeches were made, ukuthwala continues to occur in marginalised communities, even though it infringes on several laws, acts and international treaties that South Africa is signatory to.

Most importantly, it constitutes various human rights violations. Think abduction, forced marriage, underage marriage, rape, assault, human trafficking, denial of basic education, denial of freedom of choice?.?.?.?the list goes on.

“We should not give the natives any academic education. If we do, who is going to do the manual labour in the community?” That’s a 1945 quote attributed to former ­National Party politician JN le Roux that is often quoted on commemoration days like Youth Day. Replace a few words from this quote and it is clear that, for many girls in our country, it still applies, almost 70 years later and 19 years since the end of apartheid.

“We should not give the rural girl any academic education. If we do, who is going to do the wifely labour (conjugal duties, child-bearing and rearing, cooking and cleaning, planting and harvesting of crops, looking after the family’s aged, infirm and ill) in the community?”

Should a girl, first and foremost, have the freedom and opportunity to pursue her education to the fullest, to develop her talents and passions into skills, and be allowed to choose when to marry and start a family, her family and the future of her children would be far better for it, and so would South Africa.

– Additional edits by Melanie Hamman-Doucakis

*?Pseudonyms have been used to protect these identities as girls and women spoke to us without their husbands’ and in-laws’ consent

»?This article was written from interviews conducted as part of Media Monitoring Africa’s ­research project, The Girl Child and Ukuthwala: Misappropriated cultural practices and their contribution to human trafficking in SA. For more information, contact Melanie Hamman-Doucakis at melanieh@mma.org.za

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