Poverty in South Africa: Girl traded for 3 cows and forced into marriage

Poverty in SAfrica: 3 cows and a forced marriage
By Sibongile Khumalo (AFP) – Dec 9, 2009

PALMERTON, South Africa — Nolizwi Sinama was 14 years old when her family swapped her for three cows and forced her into marrying a man three times her age.

Now staying at a local shelter for abused youth, the shy teenager fidgets nervously and fights back the tears as she talks about her three-year ordeal, during which she was raped daily.

Her family abandoned her at the house of her new "husband," a 42-year-old widower from KwaCele village, in a once-forgotten practice that is now being revived by poor, rural South African families desperate for money.

Sinama's case mirrors that of hundreds of other girls in rural parts of the impoverished Eastern Cape province, where nearly 200,000 people live on less than a dollar a day.

The ancient marriage custom, called ukuthwalwa, meaning "to be carried" in the Xhosa language, is a pre-arranged act where a man who had tried in vain to court a woman resorts to forcing her into marriage.

In the past the victim was normally an adult, but now men as old as 60 are abducting pubescent girls and forcing them into illegal customary marriages, outraging cultural activists and welfare authorities.

"It all happened too fast," said Sinama, who now stays at a local shelter. "One day I was a normal girl attending school, the next day I was living with an unknown family and an old man who forced me to have sex with him daily."

"I could not go back home, my grandmother told me never to come back. They sold the cows and got money," she added.

Now 17, she escaped her tormented married life in July and found solace at Palmerton care centre, which has also become a home to 18 other teenage girls who escaped similar situations.

They were rescued by welfare officials and police in a campaign to stem the practice, even though many communities see nothing wrong with it.

Most of the girls say their abductions were pre-arranged with their parents and left them no say in the process.

In many cases, girls are forced out of school and bear children, when they are barely out of puberty.

"He raped me on our first night together. Every day he forced himself on me, in all the cases he overpowered me after a struggle," said Sinama, who now has a two-year-old boy by the man.

"I love my child and I am going to raise him to be a good man."

Captain Nomana Adonis from Mthontsasa police station, which leads a rescue campaign in villages around the area of Lusikisiki, said the abductions were a new phenomenon.

"This is new. We believe there may be hundreds of other girls out there we did not reach," said Adonis.

"We have encountered girls as young as 13 who were sold to old men, opening them to chances of contracting diseases like HIV."

She said a number of "husbands" and parents had been arrested.

"In most case the husbands are charged with rape and abduction, but so far we have not secured a single conviction," said Adonis.

Peter Mtuze, a retired academic and the former head of African Languages at Rhodes University, decried the unothordox revival of ukuthwalwa, saying it did not fit in the mordern world.

"Children are literally being sold, almost to the highest bidder. This is paedophilia," said Mtuze.

"In the old days men usually abducted women who were of marriage age, not minors. This is not culture," said Mtuze, adding that in the past, girls who were abducted were not raped.

"The girl was kept safe until she accepted the love proposal from the man. Messengers were then sent to the parents of the girl to start lobola (dowry) talks," said Mtuze.

He said the custom was practiced secretly by a number of tribes in African countries.

Both the government of South Africa and the Human Rights Commission (HRC) have condemned the practice, saying it has no place in a modern society.

"This custom is taking us backwards as a country. We are doing our best to stop it and protect the children," said Phearane Moreroa, head of HRC.

Copyright © 2010 AFP