'We took her during the day': True stories of bridal abduction, or Ukuthwalwa

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"Girls young enough to be at school were made wives to keep the family name going. Photo: Getty Images
"Girls young enough to be at school were made wives to keep the family name going. Photo: Getty Images

The practice of ukuthwala is an age-old customary marriage practice where a man, by force, takes a girl to his home with the intention of following through with a customary marriage. 

This practice is generally deemed criminal now, due to some of the perpetrators of this practice being abusive and abusing the intention of this custom, explains a South African study by Mkhuseli Jokani.

In his 2018 doctoral thesis, Jokani clears any confusion by bringing to our attention three variants of ukuthwala, namely:

  • ukuthwalwa ngemvumelwano - abduction by agreement
  • ukuthwalwa kobolawu - abduction for arranged marriage
  • ukuthwalwa okungenamvumelwano - abduction without agreement

Abduction by agreement happens when the girl is aware of the abduction that will take place. This could occur for example when there is a conspiracy between the girl and her suitor. 

Abduction for arranged marriage happens through an agreement between the families of the girl and the groom's family. In this case, the girl is unaware.

The third one, abduction without agreement, happens when the girl and the girl's family is not aware of the abduction and months go by without the boy's family arriving at the girl's home to negotiate lobola, or even explain what has happened.

African customary law on the age-appropriate for marriage says that in the traditional sense, ukuthwala applies to young women of marriageable age. 

According to customary law, an explanation is that "the girl is not regarded as a minor if she has reached puberty and has acquired a certain level of maturity, where she can start a family."

Read: Why marriage is important for African family building 

Criminalisation of ukuthwala

According to Jokani's doctoral thesis, this practice becomes a crime when there is lack of consent, unlawfulness, or the removal of a minor from their home without the parent's consent or the girl's consent.

Jokani explains that, out of the three variants of the practice of ukuthwalwa, only the first variant of ukuthwala can be considered the legal one because there is mutual consent.

Using the practice of ukuthwala by perpetrators to hide their criminal intentions to oppress and violate the rights of young girls is forbidden by law.

Nonetheless, in a recent study by isiXhosa student Bongeka Mhlauli found that even though the practice of abducting young girls and forcing them into marriages is discouraged in South Africa, because it is a criminal offence, it is still happening in some areas of South Africa. 

Also read: 'It saved me and my sister': The kidnapping avoidance tip that saves lives  

Abducted by her class teacher 

Parent24 interviewed a bride who was married via this practice in 1994. 

Mandlovu* from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, now aged 45, was abducted to be married at 18. Her abduction was illegal, even though it was agreed upon by her parents, as she was not aware of the abduction at the time and tried escaping when she realised what was happening.

She told us that she was abducted by her class teacher who started to make advances to her when she was in Grade 8.

"He started showing interest and wanting me to remain behind when other students have left or wanting to talk to me alone in his office. I was uncomfortable with it and I told him off," she told us. 

Mandlovu says she thought that he saw that he was wrong for trying to ask her out, but got a surprise when she was failed and made to repeat grade 8 so that she could not leave that school and study elsewhere.

"I was very smart. There is no way I could fail. Everyone knew I was very smart. I always came first in my class," she says,

"Come to think of it, he was just buying time so that he can save up money to pay lobola for me."

"The day of my abduction"

Mandlovu tells us that because this class teacher lived in a village far from hers, she never expected to see him in her village - until one morning as she was fetching water from the river nearby.

"On the day of my abduction, I recall coming from fetching water and seeing my class teacher and two other men who were almost his age at the time, at a distance walking. I knew that something was up," she says.

"I got home and a few minutes later I saw him and those two other men arriving at my home. I went to my room and I made sure that the door was locked very tight. I quickly made 11 bolts out of metal nails and locked myself inside."

Mandlovu tells us that the door was kicked twice, but all the nails straightened out and the door was opened wide.

Thereafter, she was forcefully dragged out of her home to be a bride in a village she has never seen before.

She goes on to explain that even though this was the case, she was warmly welcomed in the new family and she raised four kids with her husband, and they are happy together.

"My husband takes care of us financially, as he is the only one working, my role is to look after our children and be a good wife to him at all times," she says.

Also see: OPINION: Are customary practices exempt from the 'no smacking' ruling?

"I married her at 15 years"

Parent24 also talked to a father of five who married through this custom.

Dlamini, 62, from Ngcobo in the Eastern Cape, told us he recalls the day he was looking for a wife like it was yesterday, adding that he had "so many girlfriends at the time" but that he was at the stage where he wanted to "settle down".

"Even though I had so many girlfriends I was playing with, it was time for me to take a wife. But because I did not want someone who will not take me seriously, I decided to take someone who does not know me at all. I married her at 15 years in 1985. She looked mature to me when I saw her for the first time," he explained. 

"On the day that I took her I asked three friends of mine to accompany me to her home. She was sending her mother food from a nearby farm where she was busy harvesting," he says.

At first, her parents were not involved.

Dlamini describes how he and three friends abducted his wife. "We took her during the day. It was not at night. Sometimes, it happens that when you go abduct a girl, people from that village would fight you to stop it, so inviting more people was to make sure that there is someone who could carry the girl away, should a fight occur."

He explains that the following morning, people from his family were sent to the family of the girl to report that the girl has been taken by his family.

Thereafter, elders, that are negotiators, are also sent to speak for the groom at the girl's family during the lobola negotiations.

"After all the cultural rites, the two families made peace and I was considered as their son-in-law," he says.

"This was the only way we would marry in our culture back in the day it was normal to do what I did." 

"The only way of starting a family"

He adds that the only difference with what was happening back then from what is happening today is that both men and women would date and agree upon getting married.

"Whereas, with them, if the man wants to get married to you, he could do it forcefully. Women were dragged and beaten in the process, when they refuse you as a man, but now that is considered assault and it is illegal," he stresses.

He adds "Abduction for marriage was a common practice in our cultures for a long time. Even though it is illegal now, most people knew it as the only way of starting a family."

*Names changed

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