CityPress - - News - ZINHLE MAPUMULO zinhle.mapumulo@city­press.co.za

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.

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