VICTORY IN SIGHT IN OUR RELENTLESS FIGHT AGAINST UKUTHWALA - THE FORCING OF UNDERAGE GIRLS TO WED MEN OLD ENOUGH TO BE THEIR GRANDFATHERS
By Nontembeko Boyce
When trials and tribulations engulf a nation, its citizens, almost by default, locate themselves in two distinct groups: those who aggressively and relentlessly fight against the prevailing evil, and folks whose response is somehow lukewarm.
The actions and indeed postures of the latter grouping betray an acceptance of the status quo, a resignation of not only their collective fates, but those of the nation as well, to the seemingly insurmountable lugubrious state of affairs at that given time.
A classic example of the aforementioned is the barbaric Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade which saw an estimated 12.8 million Africans being shipped across the Atlantic Ocean over a span of 400 years.
The ill-treatment of slaves was inhumane and saw flogging, lynching and rape become common, acceptable forms of punishments for Black people.
During that ruthless crusade, you had people who risked their lives and took it upon themselves to fight the vicious system with their lives.
Among those who fought tooth and nail against slavery was Zumbi dos Palmares, a slave sold in Brazil whose decision to fight against the oppression saw her being beheaded. There was also Harriet Tubman, a world-renowned slave who conducted over a dozen missions to rescue more than 70 slaves in the United States of America.
Summarising her struggle against slavery, Tubman would say: “If I could have convinced more slaves that they were slaves, I could have freed thousands more.”
The difficulty Tubman encountered when she tried to rescue her follow Africans from slavery is the same struggle that we face today in trying to encourage communities to fight against the violation of women’s rights and patriarchy in South Africa.
That is why we still have ukuthwala still being accepted in many rural communities in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. This, despite it being a violent abduction of young innocent girls by men with the intention of compelling their families to endorse marriage negotiations.
When we conduct our oversight visits to different parts of the province, we hear horror stories of underage girls who are kidnapped, raped and forced into marriages.
Some of them are as young as twelve years and yet they are groomed by men old enough to be their grandfathers into a life that is nothing short of sexual slavery.
In communities where ukuthwala is still being practised, some mothers and fathers of the young girls who are abducted seem to have accepted the status quo. They don’t fight against the prevailing evil and simply accept the payment of damages and ilobolo.
Equally, they also don’t report abduction cases to law enforcement agencies.
What is even worse is that some victims do not know that they are sufferers thus making it impossible for gender activists and law enforcement agencies to rescue them. This happens because these young people were born into a practice that had long been accepted as the norm by their parents.
The KwaZulu-Natal Legislature’s Quality of Life Portfolio Committee has in the recent past been working closely with the non-profit organisations, institutions of high learning and the traditional leadership to develop a concrete plan to end ukuthwala.
We therefore commend academics for leading a team of activists and academics who have just completed a comprehensive programme to end the abuse of underage girls.
Working with stakeholders including traditional leaders, non-profit organisations, members of community, SAPS, National Prosecuting Authority and the Commission for Gender Equality, the team has developed a clear protocol of reporting underage and forced marriages.
The reporting protocol has been adopted by Amangwe Traditional Council in Loskop (one of ukuthwala hotspots) where it has been used as a pilot and it was recently presented to the House of Traditional Leadership. The next port of call is to ensure that the protocol is adopted by relevant stakeholders in all parts of KwaZulu-Natal.
By adopting the protocol, the stakeholders agree to end the practices of forced marriages and they come to an agreement that it constitutes human trafficking as defined in the Trafficking and Combating of Trafficking of Persons (Act No. 7 of 2013).
We are now looking forward to a situation where any person who becomes aware of forced marriage, will report such immediately to the local traditional leader, the South African Police service and the Department of Social Development. The traditional councils will also ensure that no payment of damages or lobolo takes place.
The KwaZulu-Natal legislature will continue working with academics and non-profit organisations as we are confident that the journey we have begun will finally hit the nail on the head of ukuthwala.
We are doing this because we have been warned by various bodies including the Department of Constitutional Development and Justice that if Ukuthwala is not eliminated, it will reverse the gains we have made in dealing with discrimination against women.
We know that dropping out of school deprives the child education opportunities, including tertiary education and skills training. Research conducted with young girls that have been victims of Ukuthwala and attendant rape, forced marriage and teenage pregnancy has revealed numerous health complications for the young girls.
This Opinion piece is written by Nontembeko Boyce. She is the Speaker of KwaZulu-Natal Legislature