Child bride horror

04 August 2014 - 02:00 By Poppy Louw
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WARY EYES: A girl at her home in Magangangosi - an 'ukuthwala' hot spot
WARY EYES: A girl at her home in Magangangosi - an 'ukuthwala' hot spot

Seventeen-year-old schoolgirl Bonisiwe Sithole constantly lives under the threat of forced marriage - justified as conforming to the tradition of ukuthwala.

A survivor of four attempts at abduction by would-be "husbands" - three in one week - the Kwa-Zulu-Natal teenager fears that if her assailants are not arrested she will become just another statistic.

"They said I'm going to be a wife to one of them. I'm afraid of going to school and only feel safe at home. I'm angry because they want to ruin my life and my future," the Magangangosi, Bergville, girl said.

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Also read: Culture or crime?

The prevalence of ukuthwala, which is illegal, led to the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities researching it. The commission will present its findings to parliament this month.

According to experts on African tradition, ukuthwala is the abduction of young women with the intention of forcing marriage negotiations.

The commission's chairman, Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xavula, said the research would help in the protection of the custom in its true form, "which does not promote marriage without a woman's consent, or the abduction and rape of women and children".

The police in Bergville, one of KwaZulu-Natal's ukuthwala "hot spots", said disgruntled parents withdrew charges once they found that they could claim for damages in a traditional court.

But AmaNgwane chief Menzi Hlongwane claims that he has not dealt with a case related to ukuthwala since his reign began in 2005.

Though he condemned ukuthwala, AbaThembu chief and Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders chairman Ngangomhlaba Matanzima said that, because of government delays in finalising the Traditional Courts Bill, there was no clarity on the role of traditional leaders in reporting cases of ukuthwala.

"Right now it is up to the affected girl or her family to report the matter to police," Matanzima said.

Gender activist and researcher for the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre Lisa Vetten said the amended Sexual Offences and Related Matters Act made it mandatory for "anyone" to report sexual offences against children to the police.

The Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act calls on anyone who knows of, or suspects, children under 18 being trafficked to report it to police.

Said Vetten: "If traditional leaders do not report it they should be charged and prosecuted.

"It is ridiculous that they try to excuse their illegal conduct on the grounds that the bill has not been passed. Existing law is clear on their current duties."

A police officer in the Loskop area of KwaZulu-Natal, who asked not to be named, said he knew of five ukuthwala cases so far this year and recalled 50 ukuthwala-related cases in 2012-2013.

A Bergville policeman attributed the lack of accurate statistics to parents, community members and traditional leaders who failed to report cases to police.

Since 2009, more than 30 underage girls have been rescued from forced marriages and placed in the Palmerton Child Care Centre, in Lusikisiki, Eastern Cape.

Only three of the "thwalad" girls live at the centre today.

Though the police were called in during rescue operations, most of the perpetrators were not arrested.

A police parliamentary briefing in October revealed that only 21 arrests and 255 ukuthwala offences were recorded in 2012-2013.

In Eastern Cape, police recorded 17 arrests and 116 abductions relating to ukuthwala; in KwaZulu-Natal police recorded three arrests and 138 abductions.

Operation Bobbi Bear managing director Jackie Branfield, who has dealt with more than 200 ukuthwala-related cases since 1994, said: "It's the most disgusting practice I've ever come across."

A study by Unicef shows that more than 700million women were married as children worldwide.

According to global figures by the UN Population Fund, 13.4million African women aged 20 to 24 in 2010 were married as young girls.

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