Shocking cultural practices

2019-01-21 16:12
A file image of thousands of young girls dressed in traditional Zulu attire attended the annual ceremony known as the Umkhosi Womhlanga/Reed Dance, which is a centuries-old tradition.

A file image of thousands of young girls dressed in traditional Zulu attire attended the annual ceremony known as the Umkhosi Womhlanga/Reed Dance, which is a centuries-old tradition. (Khaya Ngwenya)

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Researchers have uncovered cultural practices such as ukuthwala, forced and early marriages still happening in the secluded rural and poverty-stricken community of Loskop, near Estcourt.

University of KwaZulu-Natal researchers, Lisa Wiebesiek and Professor Relebohile Moletsane, have, since the end of 2016, been working on a research project to better understand and address sexual violence in rural communities.

Wiebesiek said one of the key issues raised by the girls they work with is that of forced and early marriage. “The girls see this practice as a form of condoned abduction and rape,” she said.

She said they met high school girls after school where they tackle issues which affect them directly. “They said the things you would expect like illiteracy, teenage pregnancy, HIV and Aids but what they really focused on and brought to our attention was the issue of early and forced marriages among girls and young women in the area.”

Wiebesiek said there were three cultural acts that affected the girls — early marriages, ukuthwala (abduction) and another practice called Egangeni.

She said Egangeni was an event that takes place every two years or so where unmarried women and girls gather at a field in the area wearing traditional attire and are “sort of paraded across the field” to be selected by men for marriage. Wiebesiek said it was similar to the Reed Dance but less formal and organised.

“If the lobola negotiations and payment are done that day the men can take the girls or young women back home with them the same day and they are then married. It is a condoned practise as sometimes there is consent from both families and sometimes there is consent from the girls although they are legally under age; we are particularly concerned about the girls under 18.”

She said the community condoned and sometimes encouraged young women and girls to get married before they finish high school. Once they marry, they don’t finish school. “Even if the girls claim to have given their consent, we are very aware that consent can’t be given unless there was no coercion. It is difficult to tell if there was coercion or not and whether the family put pressure on the girls to get married because of the lobola money or because it is considered appropriate at that age.”

Wiebesiek said the logic for the families of these young women is that because they are struggling, they believe that if their daughter marries into a particular family then that family will provide for them. “It wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t condoned. If it wasn’t acceptable for a 16-year-old girl to get married, it wouldn’t be happening,” she said.

She said they were made aware of abductions and forced marriages which she described as “an abuse of the idea of ukuthwala”.

“Ukuthwala was historically this practice which involved two consenting young adults, not teenagers, where the man would take or abduct the woman and take her to his family home and the marriage process would then start.

“Now what happens is that girls are taken, and we know this because it has just happened with one of the girls we work with. There was a man in the community who was proposing to her, but she was not interested, and they were not in a relationship. So he just took her.

“[The 17-year-old girl] was walking home from a soccer field with a group of other girls and he just took her.

“The family is not sure whether this is her way of getting what she wanted, or was she taken? 

“There is a pressure from the community for her not to return home because the process has started. We see there is pressure on the girl to stay rather than pressure on the man to not perpetrate violence. We always see blame being placed on women for being a victim of violence, like why was she out alone? Why was she wearing a short skirt? She shouldn’t have gone with him.

“And you will hear things like she didn’t scream loud enough or resist enough so she must have wanted it, which is not taking into account that probably if you were in that situation you would also be afraid.”

Wiebesiek said at the beginning of the new year another girl they work with was abducted and “married off”.

“She managed to escape and return to her home and is currently at the local police station in Loskop with our community partner receiving counselling. She should be entering Grade 12 this year. Another girl we work with was abducted in December and is yet to return. She should be entering Grade 11 this year,” said Wiebesiek.

Wiebesiek said there has been both traditional and political leadership interest in ending these practises.

“There was a task team set up last year but unfortunately these things still keep happening. Until at community level there is a change in attitude towards this kind of thing, this will keep happening.

“Girls aren’t safe and even if they say they want to get married our concern is that it is coerced as there are greater powers of influence around her.”

‘This has been happening for generations’

Last year the girls in the community organised a community dialogue and an awareness march on Human Rights Day and Wiebesiek said a lot of the messages were about the customs of early and arranged marriages.

“Some of their mothers spoke up against this, having also experienced this when they were young girls. This has been happening for generations. The mothers spoke about having been married off at the age of 14 years old without their consent.

“I think people need to ask questions about consent and what are the factors that make this a viable option for young women. In such impoverished situations we as outsiders can’t go and say this is a bad idea when it’s the only option for them. People need to talk about it,” said Wiebesiek.

Change needed at a community level

Wiebesiek said that the aim of the research is to stimulate and facilitate some kind of change at a community level.

“Our long-term goal is to facilitate some sort of change at policy level because if there is a clear framework around this and what should happen in such situations and what is considered consent, then there will be more recourse and there will be clear political and traditional leadership.”

‘These are acts of oppression’

Cookie Edwards, executive director of the KZN Network on Violence Against Women, said these cultural practices were acts of “oppression” especially considering that the people involved were young teenage girls.

“The face of patriarchy comes up again as women are taught to be submissive.

“No matter how much we raise awareness ... these cultural norms just keep on happening.

“I don’t know if we’re fighting a losing battle. We recently had the National Gender Summit in Pretoria but still these things continue happening.

“We go into communities to speak up against these practices, we tell them women are not objects to be sold but nothing changes because these cultural practises have been entrenched in people’s minds.”

She said such issues should become the government’s responsibility, but the government says they don’t have human resources and sometimes no budget. “This is a sad issue of cultural norms. These young girls have no say, no voice, because they stay in those communities. If they refused to be married off what happens to them?

“They can’t even run away because where would they go, where would they stay because there are no support structures for those who wish to escape these situations?”

Edwards also called for facilities to be built to shelter abused women seeking a safe haven.

‘We need to empower young women’

A local woman, who asked not to be named in fear of victimisation, said these cultural practices were “oppressing” both the young women and their parents.

“There is this mentality that a woman’s place is at home cooking in the kitchen and bearing children.

“The researchers and other organisations working in the community can speak to the girls as much as they want but not much will change until the mindsets of the parents change.

“Parents should be sensitised about these issues and taught how to deal with these situations.

“We need to empower young women and encourage them to study as education could be their only escape.

“We sometimes find that after being married off these girls sometimes suffer domestic or verbal abuse from their husbands or his family but they have no other option but to stay as they have nothing else to fall back on if they leave,” said the woman.

‘Girl abductions, forced and early marriages a thing of the past’

Phumelele Mgaga, the ward councillor at Mnyangweni in Loskop, said the cultural practices of girl abductions, forced and early marriages were a thing of the past in their community.

“I think that parents of the young girls and the girls themselves realised that it was wrong, and they focused more on school and education. Such incidents rarely happen nowadays and since I have been ward councillor [since 2016] I can’t recall dealing with any reports of forced marriages or girls being abducted.”

She said girls were still getting married at a young age, but said it was always an agreement between the couple. Explaining the Egangeni practise, Mgaga denied that the girls were paraded to be chosen by men.

“This is when girls in different age groups go to sing and dance at a field. It’s more like a cultural modelling contest. They all wear different attires to differentiate their ages.

“The 16-year-olds are called iqomeshana, 18-year-olds called are ingomase and then the 20-year-olds are called amatshitshi. It’s usually a two-day event attended by the community, the families of the girls and other community leaders. The 20-year-olds are regarded ready for marriage and if any man is interested in her he can ask her out and if they all agree then the marriage can go ahead. No one is grabbed and taken against their will,” she said.

Mgaga said taking part in this event was voluntary and that not many girls in the community participated in this. “These girls are also naughty. They sometimes cook up a plan with their boyfriends to pretend they have been abducted and when their parents attempt to fetch them from their partners’ homes the girls say its fine, they will stay.

“Everyone knows that abduction is a serious crime and people can get arrested for such acts,” said Mgaga.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  women abuse
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