Thabile* was 15 when she was forced to marry a man in his thirties in the Mgudlulweni village near Mount Frere in the Eastern Cape. Her parents agreed to “give” their daughter to him. She did not know about the marriage or consent to it. On her way to school one day, four men abducted her.
“I was walking to school and they grabbed me. They took me to a man I did not know to be my husband,” Thabile says. Meantime her parents held a meeting with the man’s parents to discuss lobola.
Abduction and forcing a young girl into marriage is traditionally called ukuthwalwa in the Nguni languages. Ukuthwalwa is “mostly practised in rural areas in provinces such as Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape”, says Sam Mokgopha, assistant director of Kids Haven, a welfare organisation in Johannesburg for abused and abandoned street children.
Darkie Mpikwa, from Girlsnet Alfred Nzo Club in the Eastern Cape, says rural people believe there is nothing wrong with the practice because the elders performed it.
Within a year Thabile was pregnant. Her husband accused her of cheating on him. “He refused to eat my food, talk to me or come near me, so I went home to give birth. I tried to commit suicide when I was seven months pregnant by hanging myself,” Thabile says. Her brothers found and rescued her.
Five years later Thabile is looking for a job. She stays with her aunt in Thembisa, Johannesburg. At 20 she is thinking of going back to school.
Mokgopha says forced marriages of children as young as nine are a harsh reality in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo.
“We know it happens, but we don’t know on what scale or how frequently. No academic research has been done on forced marriages,” says Lucy Jamieson, senior advocacy coordinator of the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town.
The new Children’s Bill prohibits forcing a child into marriage or engagement without her consent. It stipulates that the minimum age for marriage is 18. Parents who do not comply face 10 years in jail.
At 14 Khutjo* escaped from being a bride-to-be with the help of Kids Haven. “I stayed in Johannesburg when I was young and visited my family during holidays. When I was 14 my mother told me I had to marry my aunt’s husband  who stays in Jane Furse [in rural Limpopo]. He wanted a second wife because my aunt could not bear children. I felt hurt; my family did not respect me.”
Her family was not paid lobola because she was “compensation” for her aunt’s inability to conceive children. No official ceremony took place, merely a discussion between the relatives. Khutjo was forced to attend an initiation ceremony where she was told what to expect during the marriage. Afterwards she did all the housework, preparing meals, washing clothes and scrubbing pots and plates — and bearing her husband’s children.
Khutjo was at Kids Haven because she had been removed from her mother’s custody owing to neglect. Kids Haven refused to let Khutjo be forced into marriage and she escaped. “These families force their children to marry because of the money they receive through lobola,” says Mokgopha. “Girls as young as seven are groomed for marriage â€¦ it is similar to feeding a chick that will one day by eaten.”
Mokgopha says Khutjo’s family is trying to force her younger sister (17) into marriage now. “As an organisation we are trying to prevent this.”
Jamieson says: “There is a strong link between virginity testing and forced marriages. Once chosen during virginity testing, the girl is traded like a commodity. Her right to protection, freedom, security and education is violated. Some run away and end up on the street.” Mpikwa says few girls who leave their husbands return to their families; they are rejected because they are no longer virgins. “Some end up as prostitutes because it’s the only way to make money.”
*Not their real names
Progress Towards a World Fit for Children, a document released by Unicef this month, says child marriage has been imposed on more than 60-million girls worldwide. The report finds the practice is most extensive in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Underage marriages are experienced by both sexes, but primarily girls. In countries such as Sierra Leone child marriage “is common, with 26% of girls married before 15, and 62% before 18”.
“Child marriage has physical implications for young girls, notably premature pregnancy and childbirth, which entail vastly increased risks of maternal and neonatal mortality.”
The report states that pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of mortality for 15 to 19-year-old girls worldwide — whether they are married or not — and those under 15 are five times more likely to die than women in their twenties. Their children also are less likely to survive.
“If a mother is under 18, her baby’s chance of dying in the first year of life is 60% higher than that of a baby born to a mother older than 19. A child bride also is severely disadvantaged by the age gap with her husband or partner and the resulting unbalanced household power relationship. This can lead to domestic violence, bonded labour, lack of freedom and decreased opportunity for education,” the report says. Between 1987 and 2006 34% of women aged 20 to 24 in the developing world were married or in unions before the age of 18.
The report says an important step in preventing child marriages is to support girls’ right to education. “On average, women with seven or more years of education marry at age 20 or older. In addition, offering adolescent girls greater opportunities for training and employment can enhance their status and thereby decrease the likelihood of child marriage.” — Surika van Schalkwyk and Zodidi Mhlana