A Conversation About "Abduction" and Forced Marriage in South Africa

The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) has a story in their June 17 newsletter on ukuthwalwa, or “arranged marriage”, in Lusikisiki, South Africa. The newsletter states:

“The custom of ukuthwalwa is being abused in some remote areas of Lusikisiki, including kwa Ncele, Khanayayo and Hlabathi. Once a custom of arranged marriages, ukuthwalwa has become a violent practise. In many cases, parents are arranging for young girls to marry without the girls’ consent. More violent scenarios involve ukuthwalwa being used to legitimise the abduction of 14 to 17 year old girls for forced marriage. The victims are being abducted by strangers as well as by relatives. These young girls are being forced into unlawful marriages with widowed men who are 55 to 70 years old. The men are often HIV positive.”

It goes on to describe specific cases of abduction, abuse, and forced marriage, including this one involving 14-year-old Neliswa Shabane:

“Earlier this year, Neliswa ran away from her hut which was guarded by five men, two of which were her relatives. Just after she ran away, Neliswa met the mayor’s daughter as she was driving through kwa Ncele. “I did not want to marry an old man; all I want is to go to school,” Neliswa told her. The mayor’s daughter took Neliswa to the Mthontsasa police station to report that she was about to be abducted.”

IWHC Program Officer for Africa Lyn Messner, IWHC partner Delphine Serumaga, Executive Director of People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Nhlanhla, Front-line Services Co-ordinator at POWA, had a conversation about ukuthwalwa, abduction, forced marriage, and abuse of women’s rights based on their experience in the region and in the field of women’s health. They share their insights below.

First, Lyn responds to the TAC article:

“During the three years I lived in Lesotho 20 years ago, I was a teacher in a rural village. My students walked up to 7 kilometers each way to our school. Some of my female students were “kidnapped” on their way to or from school. This illustrates how the issue is rarely talked about as early marriage or forced marriage, rather, as “abduction” or “kidnapping”.  But, if the girl cannot escape (hard to do with 5 men guarding the house) and “stays the night” she is considered married.  In some cases, as described in the TAC article, the man pays lobola (bride price) to the girl’s family.  That way, the family is compensated, the man has a young “wife” and “everyone” is happy – except for the girl, of course, who has just had multiple rights violated and is being held a prisoner to abuse.”

Delphine’s response:

“I agree with you about a multitude of rights being violated.  The interesting thing is that, so long as the issue is considered abduction alone, other violations will never be addressed or recognized. There is kidnapping and forced marriage, which is the most obvious, but I am not sure we deal with rape and statutory rape as well.  Sexual exploitation is covered by the Sexual Offences Act.  Girls who are abducted on the way to school, one could argue, are denied access to education by both the family and the ‘husband’ and cronies. So, I believe there are many intersecting angles that we can look at this and enact various legislation and other instruments to campaign against this rights abuse.”

And colleague Nhlanhla chimes in as well:

“I agree with Delphine. This issue needs a  well coordinated effort to address it holistically. The focus should be on protecting all the rights of the child, but these rights will continue to be violated if women in those communities are oppressed  under the pretense of culture and the protection of patriarchy by communities. Work needs to be done with  women, children, so-called custodians of culture, and politicians in those communities to ensure that a holistic approach is developed.”

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