t least 7% of women in South Africa married or were in a civil union before they reached the age of 18.
Some of them were even married by the age of 15.
Most of these child marriages, according to the latest report on child marriages released by the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef ), took place in rural areas.
While 7% may seem like a fraction compared with countries such as Malawi, where child marriage rates are as high as 62%, local women and children’s rights activists believe the figure is the tip of the iceberg.
They say child marriages in many parts of South Africa are an accepted norm, and they are rarely reported.
Sizani Ngubane, founder of the Rural Women’s Movement, told City Press that, in rural areas, people believed that when a girl reached puberty she was ready to be a wife.
Ngubane, who has been at the forefront of the war against the abduction of girls who are then forced into marriage (known as ukuthwala) in southern parts of KwaZulu-Natal, said: “Girls are seen as commodities that can be sold to the highest bidder in rural areas.
“I am not sure whether it is poverty that drives parents to give away their daughters to older men, or pure evil exercised by men who see young girls as sex slaves. The [7%] figure mentioned in the report doesn’t even come close to reflecting the situation on the ground,” she said.
Ngubane said that although ukuthwala seemed to have died down over the past three years, many girls were still being forced to marry older men.
“There seems to be a common trend where girls are forced to marry men who take their virginity. What is worrying about this is that, sometimes, the girls, because they have been deflowered by that person, are forced to marry their rapists,” Ngubane said.
Ngubane’s statement is in line with the findings of a survey conducted by World Vision in Umzimkulu in KwaZulu-Natal recently. The survey found that young girls were being pressured into marriage with older men because they had been deflowered by them.
World Vision researchers surveyed 40 married girls between the ages of 14 and 18 from two local high schools. They found that a majority of them married because they had visited their boyfriends and lost their virginity. Their spouses were between eight and 20 years older than them.
Child marriage is a problem worldwide, but Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan African countries seem to be the worst affected. The Unicef report said 15 million girls were married off every year, which translates into 41 000 every day.
The report also indicates that child marriage is associated with many harmful consequences, including early pregnancy, HIV infection, an increased school dropout rate, gender-based violence and a greater likelihood of poverty.
Ngubane said the Rural Women’s Movement had noted similar circumstances within the areas it worked.
“The likelihood of a child bride remaining in school is very slim, and her age and circumstances surrounding her marriage make her vulnerable to emotional, sexual and physical abuse,” she said.
Karabo Ozah, an attorney at the Centre for Child Law, agreed.
“Research has shown that girl children who marry at an early age are very likely to drop out of school,” she said.
“Their safety and wellbeing are jeopardised, exposing them to health risks and violence.”
Ozah said that although child marriage was difficult to police, government could tighten legislation and criminalise child and forced marriages.
“The Centre for Child Law is aware that this issue goes beyond the need for legislative amendments.
“But there need to be more strategic and directed advocacy campaigns that inform communities of the dangers and legal consequences of child marriages, and address the factors that drive parents and families to give out girl children to child marriages,” said Ozah.