Sometimes it is important to reflect on how lucky we South Africans are compared with other people in countries such as Sudan. Although we may still find ourselves facing gross inequalities that lead to grave injustices, we do live in a democratic dispensation under a great Constitution. I thought about this while I was following the story of Noura Hussein, a teenage bride and rape survivor.
The world is on its feet calling for justice on behalf of the 19-year-old, who is on death row. Hussein was found guilty of murdering her husband by a Sudanese court and was subsequently sentenced to death by hanging. The teen admitted to killing her husband but said that she did so in self-defence. She was not prepared to be repeatedly raped by the man she wed recently — a man she did not want to marry but was forced to by her own father.
Her matter is currently on appeal and international bodies such as the European Union, Amnesty International and the United Nations have called for clemency on behalf of Hussein and have strongly condemned the death penalty and forced marriage, among other laws.
Sudan, like many countries, is lax on women’s rights and girls being married off when they are barely older than 10. Back home, there can be no doubt that our justice system is also imperfect. The haunting dictums of culture and present-day child marriage laws are upsetting. Recent reports suggest that there are about 91 000 child marriages in South Africa. These children range in age between 12 and 17 in a phenomenon that has been described by the Commission for Gender Equality as a “worrying trend”.
Research indicates that most parts of the world allow child marriages, albeit with exceptions. In South Africa the law grants parents the right to consent to their children’s marriage. In terms of our law, a 15-year-old girl needs only parental consent to wed a man of any age. Where parental consent is not obtained or a commissioner of child welfare refuses to grant consent, a teenager may then apply to a judge of the high court for the go-ahead.
According to Professor Deirdre Byrne, the chairperson of the Unisa-Africa Girl Development Programme, the prevalence of child marriages in South Africa could be attributed to financial gain.
Byrne says that, instead of being treasured by their parents, young girls are often viewed as “sources of revenue”, prompting families to sell their underage daughters to “lascivious men” who are usually much older. This is further exacerbated by the economic inequalities faced by marginalised people in South Africa.
IOL reports on a poor, rural KwaZulu-Natal family that had married off four of their underage daughters for money. The family allegedly said that it was not as if the children had any choice, particularly as there was no other form of income for the family.
This trend also seems to indicate that only young girls are affected.
Interestingly, the legal minimum age of marriage in South Africa distinguishes between boys and girls, without offering any reasons. The legal minimum age for boys is 18 years but 15 for girls. Why is there such a distinction? This goes against all gender egalitarianism maxims and further exacerbates social ills that promote the belief that young girls are available to older men.
Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times that marriages involving child brides often don’t succeed and are, in effect, unions “between a young girl and her older rapist”.
According to Kristof, statutory rape is therefore sanctioned by the state in the guise of marriage, and the abuser ends up not in handcuffs but showered with wedding gifts.
Kristof also found it astonishing that, although the United States state department protests against child marriage in non-Western countries, every state in the US allows child marriages, apart from Delaware, which “became the first state to ban all child marriages, without exception”.
According to UN statistics, almost 750-million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday. The UN found that such marriage “often results in early pregnancy and social isolation, interrupts schooling, limits the girl’s opportunities and increases her risk of experiencing domestic violence”. As in the case of Noura Hussein, sexual violence against girls is usually perpetrated by their current or former husbands, partners or boyfriends.
It is with this in mind that there can be no justification, under any circumstances, for our laws that allow child marriages. Even the exceptions are beyond the pale. Will our country await reckoning regarding this calamity in Western countries before we do anything?
It is very important to spare some thoughts for women who become teen brides and rape victims — the Nouras of the world who are unknown and alone.
Palesa Lebitse is a regular contributor to the Body Language slot