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Child Marriage: Ukuthwala In South Africa

During the summer of 2011, I travelled to South Africa in attempt to examine the apparent overlapping ideas of universal human rights and respect for cultural diversity, through a form of female child abduction that leads to marriage. This tradition is called ‘ukuthwala’, and is practiced primarily in rural parts of South Africa, in particular the Eastern Cape and Kwala Zulu-Natal provinces.

During my trip, I visited with and interviewed female members of the Xhosa speaking Mpondo clan in Libode, Eastern Cape province to illustrate this violation in a holistic human rights framework, with the help of Nosiphiwo Delubom, founder of the Soul Winners Support Centre for Women and Children.

South Africa has not traditionally been a country that attracts very much attention for having high occurrences of child marriage, however it is becoming increasingly important, as incidences child marriage are climbing at fast pace, despite the introduction of human rights based legislation and public denunciation of the act.

The practice has been described a variety of ways. According to J.C. Bekker, C. Rautenbach, and N.M.I. Goolam, in their Introduction to Legal Pluralism in South Africa, ukuthwala is not a customary marriage, but a method to force the girl’s family to enter into marriage negotiations. In her book, Red Blanket Valley, anthropologist Joan A. Broster describes the word “ukuthwala” to mean pursue and carry off in marriage. In short, it is a culturally legitimized abduction of a girl or woman, in which the prospective husband’s friends or relatives “abduct” the female.

The practice traditionally had many functions, all of which were fundamentally connected to the family unit. Often, it was a mock abduction used to force marriage negotiations if a girl’s family objected her choice of suitor. In legitimate cases of abduction, the girl’s parents most often consented, however the girl expected that at some time or other, she would be taken for her anticipated duties of marriage. Once at the home of the man, she was treated with utmost respect and kindness. As I will later demonstrate, however, this is no longer the case.

According to T.W Bennett in his book, Human Rights and African Customary Law, African traditions perceive the centre of the socio-political order as the family, which provided for all of an individual’s material, social and emotional needs. Interests were subversive to the family unit, and individual duties were stressed, rather than individual rights. Bennett notes that the powerful ethic of generosity towards all kin (especially women and girls) assured them nurtured protection and respect. Thus,ukuthwala in its original form performed various cultural functions that served to ensure the dignity of each person in relation to their duty

Further, according to Broster who spent seventeen years living amongst a ukuthwala practicing group, even unsuspecting girls who had not themselves consented to the thwala usually did not object to its purpose. She states in her book, Red Blanket Valley, that while many girls were abducted into marriage, most were happy to be taken and the cry was a formality, or “proper form”.  Sometimes the girl genuinely did not wish to be married, although usually, girls are conditioned from childhood to look forward to the day and to believe that marriage and childbearing are the fulfillment of life. Cultural conceptions of childhood and adolescence also played an important role in determining when a female was ready to be married. Usually, slightly after puberty, a girl was seen as being able to bear children, and thus, contribute to their tribe by entering a new role in family life.

However, culture is not static. Due to socio-economic and political pressures, the tradition changed over time. Ukuthwala now usually involves a girl, reported to be as young as nine or ten years old, being married to men sometimes five times their age. They are beaten if they object, and very often raped to prevent parents from initiating efforts to have the girl returned or to report the matter (pre-marital sex is very taboo, and shame is often a factor that leads to inaction).

During my interviews, I met with women who had been both subjected to the practice and who have seen the modern application of it in their communities. It was expressed that many men abduct young girls to avoid finding a coveted virgin for marriage. Further, in the age of AIDS, many men believe that having intercourse with a virgin will rid them of the disease. While many simply see females as objects that will bear children, tend to the household, and provide sexual gratification. Most are simply taking advantage of an old tradition that has no application in today’s society.

It is important to remember the traditional conception of the family and female roles within that unit. That concept is now giving weigh to a new family – one that is affected by the forces of globalization, human rights discourse, and the responsibilities related to being part of an international community. It is no longer accepted that we excuse rights of women, and children in particular in the name of “culture”. While it once was justified by familial roles, it is now contributing to the very breakdown of family ties and communities. It is with this in mind that culture can be reclaimed and redefined to prevent forced marriages on women and girls. Although the family is changing, it is still the core unit of rural South African life.

During my interviews, I inquired about familial relationships both before and after the forced marriage. Most women told me that they felt a sense of betrayal from their families for consenting to or not helping them out of the situation. Many of the participants expressed a distrust, anger, and sadness towards their families. Interestingly, while most participants expressed a sense of deep overwhelming sadness and anger. The word “depression” does not exist in the Xhosa language. Many of the participants in the study expressed deep scars that still affect their families, and the community at large. Extended families are beginning to publicly speak out against the abuses as well.

The Congress of Traditional Leaders, as well as the Human Rights Commission has condemned the practice, and police claim that they are working against it. South Africa is heralded as having one of the most progressive Constitutions in the world, guaranteeing children and women rights enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Womenhowever it is not always translated from paper to practice. While the legislation has supported the elimination of ukuthwala, it has not been enough.

During my interview sessions, it was revealed to me that a large issue continues to be policing and monitoring of ukuthwala. While communities are increasingly becoming aware of the abuses involved, they are weary of reporting occurrences to police. Family problems are just that – family problems. Reports to the police are discouraged, as it is often viewed as an unwelcome probe into another family’s business, or even jealousy to the “marriage” of another family group’s daughter.

While women and girls increasingly benefit from progressive governmental policies, societal values continue to be dominated by families. Interestingly, while some of the participants that I spoke with objected to the practice of ukuthwala being forced upon their own daughters, some also embraced it as a typical part of becoming a woman. It is these women who will continue to allow or stop this practice.

While the structure and role of the family is changing in South Africa, it is still at the core of society. Imposing what has been perceived as “Western” ideologies on cultural groups has resulted in a society that in some ways values human rights, but in other ways resists them greatly. This tension can be resolved, while embracing human rights discourse by reframing the issue in a way that highlights the breakdown of families and communities caused by the act. It is inappropriate to frame rights strictly on an individual level in a society that places a high value on the family.

Ukuthwala is a violation of the female child’s human rights, as it denies them a choice of whether or not to participate in marriage, thus threatening their rights to survival, development, protection, and participation. However, while women and girls are owed individual rights, it seems counter-intuitive to the goals of human rights proponents to frame them strictly in an individual manner. While young girls are becoming more aware of their rights, they will not be able or even willing to demand them when they do not have support in the form of action from their families. Efforts must be tailored to the needs of the community, and in turn, we can move towards ending this violent practice towards girls in South Africa by re-embracing the South African culture of family.

About the author

Nicole Soucie is currently a law student at the University of Windsor in Canada, where she also obtained her Bachelor of Arts in Criminology & Sociology. She has a strong interest in international human rights with a special focus on equality rights for women and female children. She is currently exploring ways to combine her passions for human rights, the law and media as an agent of social change. Any concerns regarding the article can be directed to Questions and comments are welcomed. 

OCTOBER 28, 2011

This post is by Nicole Soucie as part of the series ‘Culture and Human Rights: Challenging Cultural Excuses for Gender-Based Violence’ hosted by Gender Across Borders and Violence Is Not Our Culture.

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