As soon as their daughters turn 10, most parents in Loskop, KwaZulu-Natal, consider alternative homes for them, well away from the rural town.
This drastic measure is as a result of the prevalence of ukuthwala – the tradition of abducting young girls and forcing them into marriage.
There have been at least five cases of ukuthwalain Loskop this year, all involving teenaged girls.
Sizane Ngubane, founder and leader of the Rural Women’s Movement, said the organisation had dealt with 105 cases of ukuthwala since it was launched in 2008.
Jackie Branfield, of Operation Bobbi Bear, said she had dealt with more than 200 cases. She described it as a “most disgusting practice” which should be stopped.
The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities will report back to parliament this month on its research into ukuthwala.
For Fetti Mswane, 45, who was married off as a child of 15, the trauma lingers. When she tried to return home a week later, her father rejected her: “I thought it was my fault … I went back home to ask for forgiveness but my father refused to accept me and instead took the lobola.”
Though most thwalad women were married off before 1994, every year hundreds of instances go unreported in rural areas across South Africa.
Counsellors at Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre, in East London, Eastern Cape, said most thwalad girls came from families in which the custom was regarded as normal. They said that as a girl reached puberty people started “playfully” referring to her as her “father’s bank”.
Girls who run away from marriage – forced or otherwise – are ostracised by their communities and are sometimes accused of witchcraft for refusing to marry.
A 20-year-old Grade 11 pupil was married off when she was 14 to a truck driver 11 years older. A year later, she ran away and now lives at Palmerton Child Care Centre in Lusikisiki. She still feels the deep betrayal of her family.
But not all men support these marriages .
Sibusiso Hlongwane, 17, of Bergville, KwaZulu-Natal, said ukuthwala gives men a “bad name”.
“This can’t be culture because culture is not supposed to be negative. If it was okay before for men to do this to women, they ought to know that it is now illegal,” he said.
Thabiso Mdluli, 24, said men should learn to deal with rejection and accept it when women do not love them.
“Get her approval, show her respect and let her know what your intentions are instead of forcing yourselves on a woman,” said Mdluli.