The rapidly increasing prevalence of ukuthwala, or child marriages, in the Nkomazi region of Mpumalanga has prompted a well-known lobby group advocating for women’s rights to join forces with concerned community members in a bid to combat the disturbing practice.
Positive Women’s Network (PWN) decided to lend a helping hand following the discovery that many young girls in areas such as Mjejane, Tonga, and other villages surrounding Nkomazi were forced to marry older men by their families.
According to Thandi Maluka, the leader of PWN, they sprang into action after realizing that the rate of child rapes had a ripple effect on society, forcing children to give birth at a young age.
“We have observed that females as young as 10 are forced to marry older men and become pregnant. This number is extremely concerning, and this is rape. There is no defense; it is a crime. We fear for the future of these females, as they may contract sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and other diseases. Remember, they are too young to negotiate for safer sex,” said Maluka.
Maluka said PWN members are among the community members who raised the alarm about the prevalence of alleged underage marriage arrangements in the province.
Not only has PWN implored the authorities to arrest and punish the perpetrators severely, but the organisation will also coordinate a public education campaign on sexual and gender-based violence.
“We call on all stakeholders to participate in order to protect our vulnerable women. This must end; we cannot rest until our young women are safe from these predators, and the affected family members must participate in our workshop. The workshop will begin as soon as the preparations are complete,” Maluka said.
A member of the Mjejane community who did not wish to be identified for fear of victimisation confirmed to this newspaper that the allegations are genuine, as she witnessed them occur.
“Young children are indeed being coerced into marriages. Everyone around Nkomazi is aware of this fact. This was observed in Mjejane, where I am residing. Some of the parents who are doing this, to my shock, are not even poor. In some cases, we may scapegoat poverty, but in my experience, greed and evil are to blame,” she said.
Recent reports indicate that hospitals in Nkomazi, such as Tonga Hospital and Shongwe Hospital, have witnessed an increase in the birth rate.
The estimated monthly birth rate for Shongwe is 400, while the birth rate for Tonga is 600.
According to reports, adolescents contribute significantly to these statistics.
Dumisani Malamule, spokesperson for the Mpumalanga Department of Health, has not yet confirmed the figures but stated, “Yes, we are working on the matter and will get back to you.”
The superintendent of the South African Human Rights Commission in Mpumalanga, Eric Mokonyama, has confirmed that the commission is investigating the human rights violation case in question.
The reports of older men abducting, raping, assaulting, and abusing young girls in the name of this allegedly African cultural practice outrage the South African Human Rights Commission, according to Mokonyama.
According to community members, the perpetrators conspire with the families of the victims to approach local traditional leaders with an offer to pay a fee in the event that community members confront them for their acts of cruelty.
“This practice is a crime that has nothing to do with culture and violates the victims’ rights to childhood, dignity, and safety, as well as destroying their future. The commission, in collaboration with other stakeholders, will be embarking on several interventions to make sure that our young females are saved from this savagery,” Mokonyama said. “We are requesting that communities report these criminal activities to the police, and we are also requesting that the police take action to end this criminality.”
Brigadier Selvy Mohlala, a spokesman for Mpumalanga police, warned community members against ukuthwala.
“As police in Mpumalanga, we will not tolerate any form of criminality in the province. The issue of gender-based violence and vulnerable groups is on the national agenda for offenses. We caution people against concealing illicit activities under the guise of cultural practice. Children must always be protected and permitted to be children. The community must notify us of any instances of child abuse so that we can intervene,” Mohlala said.