OPINION | Child marriage under any name is heinous

Child marriage under any name is heinous.
Child marriage under any name is heinous.
Image: 123RF

Call it underage marriage, child marriage, forced marriage or ukuthwala, all are a violation of human rights as enshrined in a long list of African and internationally ratified charters and protocols, as well as the South African constitution.

While UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres reported that globally child marriage is declining, it is not doing so fast enough.

In about 2000 nearly one in three women aged 20 to 24 years reported they had been married before 18. In 2015 the ratio was over one in four.

Guterres said the decline was driven by a steeper drop in the marriage rate among girls under 15.

However, a different picture is painted by the Stats SA Community Survey of 2016. It shows that more than 91000 SA girls aged 12 to 17 were married, divorced, separated, widowed or lived with a partner as a wife in 2016.

Although the numbers in SA are reportedly not as high as in some African countries, it is still completely unacceptable.

What causes people to target children as brides? Is there any joy in marrying a child? Why do some parents accede to these actions?

Child marriage is not only unacceptable because it violates human rights; it also has a negative impact on the health of a young girl.

As many have said, patriarchy is the main cause.

The Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) has also noted that the practice has a class character – many victims have poor family backgrounds.

There is also a commercial aspect. Some poor families agree to child marriage due to an exchange of money, what they consider ilobola.

Child marriage is not only unacceptable because it violates human rights; it also has a negative impact on the health of a young girl.

In many cases, because of their young age compared to the perpetrator, they have no say in what happens in the relationship. More ominously, their bodies are not fully developed and are susceptible to reproductive complications.

Further, their education is obstructed, which perpetuates poverty. Unabated, this becomes a cycle of poverty, generation after generation.

The CGE has acted to stop numerous marriages and acted as amicus curiae. In KwaZulu-Natal for instance, the CGE intervened by reporting the case of an abducted girl. She was returned to her home.

This was done with the assistance of National Prosecution Authority, the Hawks, SAPS and department of social development.

In KZN there has been positive cooperation between communities and the CGE in the effort to end child marriages.

The CGE was also amicus curiae in a matter that started in the Eastern Cape and ended in Cape Town – Mvumeleni Jezile vs the State, a widely reported case in which a 32-year-old man abducted a 14-year-old girl from Ngcobo in 2010. He was sentenced in the Wynberg Regional Court in 2011 to an effective 22 years in jail for three counts of rape, human trafficking and assault.

The CGE was best equipped to testify because of the work it has done on ukuthwala.

In line with its investigative mandate and duty to promote gender equality under the CGE Act, the commission has conducted investigations in KZN and the Eastern Cape to assess whether ukuthwala was being practiced in a constitutional manner and whether government departments were responding adequately to ensure the best interests of girls and women are protected and advanced.

CGE found this practice has been distorted. Subsequently, awareness-raising seminars were held in both provinces.

Recently CGE exposed the abduction of a 14-year-old in Dutywa. She was forced into an unlawful marriage.

Had it not been for the commission the case would have gone unreported. CGE’s involvement led to the arrest not only of the perpetrator but of nine accomplices.

This confirms that not only perpetrators are involved in some of these cases, but accomplices who can be parents and relatives.

What should be done to avert this? When is a child an adult? South Africa needs to address this matter urgently.

There is a need to arrest not only perpetrators but all who are involved. This will send a strong message to those who think girls can be sold. Harsh sentences should be imposed.

These crimes happen mostly during the festive season when people have extra money from bonuses. There is, therefore, a need to be pro-active. Police should be alert and act swiftly. I still maintain that had it not been for CGE’s swiftness, Jezile would not have been arrested and worse, the 14-year-old would still be “married” to this man.

Meanwhile in KZN it is well known that around December in Ixopo, an event called ihlahla occurs where dancing is done by virgins only.

This is fertile ground to “hunt” for brides.

Any plans to avert this? I have not heard of any.

In court, Jezile did not show remorse. To him abducting and marrying an underage girl was part of his culture. This means there is a need to run awareness-raising workshops.

The commission calls on citizens not to be complacent about abductions and marriages of underage girls.

Be vigilant and work closely with the authorities to end this scourge.

We implore the community to use our toll-free number 0800-007-709 to report cases of underage marriage, forced marriage, ukuthwala or any other gender-related violence.

  • Pinkie Sobahle is a commissioner with the Commission for Gender Equality

Would you like to comment on this article?
Register (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.