For many years, the customary practice of abducting young girls for marriage, known as ukuxhwilwa kwentombi, often accompanied by their terrified screams, was considered normal. This tradition typically occurred when a girl was sent alone to fetch water from a river or gather wood from a forest. As part of the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign, Health For Mzansi looks at traditional marriage practices where girls are often taken against their will.
There are different types of cultural marriage practices in Mzansi.
Ukuthwalwa kwentombi is the South African practice where a man would forcibly compel a girl into marriage with the consent of her parents. These “marriage norms” are most prevalent in rural regions, specifically the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
On the other hand, ukuxhwilwa kwentombi is the terrible practice of forcing a girl to marry an older or widowed man without her family’s consent. Abduction occurs when the girl is taken against her family’s will. Most girls were/are raped and beaten in most cases during ukuxhwilwa.
Knowing the difference
Joe Kwebulana, a cultural enthusiast from Tsomo in the Eastern Cape, says umendo – preparing a girl for marriage – was not humiliating in the past. In many black households, especially those from the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, parents teach their daughters morals to prepare them for their in-laws.
Kwebulana says in the case of ingcwaba lentombi lisemzini, an amaXhosa phrase meaning “a woman’s grave is with the in-laws”, the young girl grows up knowing that her family would give her away for marriage.
“I want to emphasise that there is a distinction between ukuthwalwa kwentombi and ukuxhwilwa – and isintu [humanity] goes a separate way with ukuxhwilwa.”
He adds that females were taught to reserve their bodies for their future spouses; this value taught them that sex is for married people. “Culturally, even when men engage in physical sex, they would do so in a way that respects boundaries.”
‘Hands off our girls!‘
According to Phiwokuhle Myoyo, the founder of Love Her Girls Foundation in East London, Eastern Cape, childhood is a critical and formative stage in a person’s existence. Myoyo, who is dedicated to grooming young girls to lead positive lives, firmly believes that this stage of their lives should be characterised by happiness, educational opportunities, and engaging recreational activities.
“Education and other essential skills are necessary for them to attain independence. How would our girls attain it when they’re surrounded by men who want to take them into wives?”
In this scenario, the young girl has swiftly assumed the role of a wife, now married and frequently fulfilling her duties towards her in-laws, and that’s not fair, she adds.
Myoyo states that ukuthwalwa and ukuxhwilwa poses a significant challenge for children, leading to high levels of pressure and stress. The described action violates the rights and dignity of their future.
Myoyo suggests that ukuthwalwa and ukuxhwilwa should be viewed as a means of raising awareness, as it instils fear in young girls regarding their safety and future.
Then, versus now
Mzuvukile Manxiwa, the co-founder of the Masibuyel’embo Black Movement in Gqeberha, explains that he has strong emotions when it comes to ukuthwalwa kwentombi. This is because he strongly opposes any form of abuse towards women, children, and all human beings.
He feels that religions have generally propagated the belief that women are morally and physically weaker than men, and this idea has been ingrained in society.
“Mothers play a crucial role in a child’s life as they are the primary carers. They are responsible for imparting important values to their children from a very young age,” he explains.
He says the whole process begins with basic tasks such as potty training and continues as the child grows, eventually enabling them to interact and play with other children.
When choosing a bride, the groom’s family often considers whether the girl comes from a family that values cultural traditions. These are some of the important factors they’d consider, adds Manxiwa.
“When men harm and sexually assault our girls, it goes against my understanding of isintu. I strongly disagree with it.”
Manxiwa says sometimes, when a man becomes involved with a girl’s family, the practice of ukuxhwilwa kwentombi can lead to the girl and her family being treated poorly by wealthier families. Some families agree to such practices out of greed, which goes against the traditional isintu norms, Manxiwa concludes.
Seek help and support
There are organisations dedicated to addressing gender-based violence, according to Myoyo, and those enduring forced marriages can seek support from dependable family members and acquaintances.
“Living in a forced marriage can have devastating effects on a person’s mental health. Some of the most common effects include depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” she explains.
Myoyo further asserts that victims may also experience emotions such as guilt, shame, and self-blame. It is critical to realise that these consequences are not attributable to the person in the forced marriage, but rather to the abuse and trauma endured. Nevertheless, the person can heal and recover with time and through counselling, she adds.
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