No end to child marriages in South Africa

2014-12-10 06:26

This year South Africa celebrates 20 years of defeating years of racial segregation and it celebrates an inclusive constitution which embraces the rich cultures of its people. In the midst of the festivity, South Africa still faces a number of ills relating to the infringement of human rights and the protection of women and children.

One particular hindrance to democracy in South Africa is the cultural practice of forced child marriages or as popularly known as “Ukuthwala” common in rural parts of South Africa such as the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu Natal. The Department of Justice and Correctional Development defines the practice as a form of abduction of a young woman or a girl by a man with the intention of marrying her. The negotiation process is done without the consent of the young woman or girl and the family is at most times aware of what will happen to their child. According to a discussion paper, the South African Law Reform Commission proposed a law to criminalise forced marriage. This came after shocking stories of sexual abuse of young girls in cases of forced child marriages in South Africa.

In a heated conversation with Aubrey Mdazana of the South African Human Rights Commission he said the issue of forced child marriage has always been a concern to the SAHRC. He explains that when they investigated the cases they discovered that the children did not know where to receive help and the South African Police shrugged off the matter saying they could not arrest the abductor because it was a cultural practice.

The act of Ukuthwala has been a respected cultural practice but as time progressed it has turned into a gender power game and has immensely contributed to the sky rocketing rape and domestic abuse statistics in South Africa. This trade between the "abductor" and the family is linked to socio-economic factors such as poverty. This then leads to the exchange of the girl for a herd of cattle or a few South African Rands in order to put food on the table.

The basic human rights of women have been substituted for a few Rands where in most cases a man easily takes advantage of the financial situation of the childs family by offering a bride price and to satisfy his sexual desires. The fight against forced child marriages in South Africa has fallen on deaf ears in orthodox communities and on the unwaxed ears of radical traditionalists. The South African government and NGO's have held numerous public conversations with leaders in areas where this practice is rife but communities responded to the call to end this act by rejecting the intervention due to the fear of losing their cultural identity.

Preserving cultural identity has become a priority over protecting women from an ancient act which has oppressed women for decades.

Nonkosi Mntu, a Public Educator at Masimanyane Women's Support Centre explains in an interview that in a rural part of the Eastern Cape called Ngqeleni, children aged 13 years old in primary school are seen clothed in traditional bride attire. Mntu mentions that this practice is not only a painful experience for today's young girls but old women who underwent this “rite of passage” tell their painful stories of how Ukuthwala took away their childhood and innocence. The turmoil and cycle of abuse continues even after the husband has passed on. Women are subjected to abuse by the husband's family where accusations of murder are blatantly thrown.

The protection of this culture has harvested fruits of domestic violence and sexual abuse of young girls and women. When asked if the South African government is doing enough to break the silence and secrecy of forced child marriages, Albertinah Sam of the women's organization, Masimanyane Women's Support Centre responded by saying the South African government is not sensitive to the issue of forced child marriages and women abuse. Sam sternly commented saying that they have to continuously remind government that this practice is still very much present. She emphasized that government is still to see that indeed abuse is without a doubt linked to forced child marriages and it haunts many communities.

Contrary to Sam's response, the SAHRC's Mdazana says they are working together with the South African government to bring collective solutions to the table on the issue. The South African Human Rights Commission has in the past brought services to affected communities where victims received counselling assistance from the department of social development.

The practice has had a damaging effect on education. The rise of illiteracy in rural parts of South Africa is traced back to forced child marriages where girls as young as 8 years old are forced to leave school to become wives. It has become clear that in these communities becoming a wife is a greater success story than earning a degree.

A statement which arises in many circles of women in South Africa is that issues relating to women would receive a speedy response from government if women were fairly represented in government. Patriachic authority has turned a blind eye to issues affecting women. Mntu agreed to this statement saying local government is headed by men who see women as second citizens and their issues a last priority on the agenda.

Mdazana emphasized that people are lacking information that will assist them in fighting the abduction of young women and children. He concluded by stressing that it is vital that government educates communities about basic human rights.

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