Forced marriages still a reality for girls


Date: December 3, 2009
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In South Africa, media recently raised concerns about the re-emergence of the cultural practice of ukuthwala (which translates to forced marriages) in the Eastern Cape Province. Under the practice, young girls as old as 11 years old are forced to marry men who could be a grandfather to them.

In some cases, the husband to be or his family abducts the girl, with no room for consent by the bride-to-be or her family. Often, the man immediately has sex with the girl to get her pregnant. Once she is pregnant, her parents are compelled to endorse the marriage.

Such practices can be found throughout the Southern African region, and it prompts one to question – why in this day and age do some citizens feel that they have more rights than others, and that rights of girls and women do not exist?

Imagine for a moment being a young girl at the tender age of 11 or 12, and having a husband chosen for you. An old man, for that matter, and your family happily receiving cattle, grain or money as they rejoice that they have one less mouth to feed.

The experience must heartbreaking and traumatising. Their future is bleak, with no opportunity to enjoy an education or be financially independent. Yet very little is being done to address the problem of forced marriage, and few recognise that it is a kind of violence against women and young girls

Forced marriage describes a situation in which one or more parties is married without his or her consent. For many young women in the world today, forced marriage is a living nightmare created by the very people supposed to protect them from harm.

In the past, forced marriages were predominantly more of a custom or social obligation, but, the economic downturn has resulted in such marriages for financial gain for the family. Literature suggests that families give away their daughters with the hope of lessening financial burdens, while at the same time receiving lobola, in the form of cash, grain and/ or livestock.

In the eastern part of Zimbabwe, families have also resorted to the old system of kuzvarira (Shona for forced marriage) for survival. Families take young girls out of school and give them to richer men in return for food and other economic gains.

Custodians of culture do not see anything wrong with the practice, as long as the bride price is paid. For the young girls who are caught up in this desperate situation, bread and butter issues rise high above their rights.

The practice is also common in the northern part of Malawi where girls from poor families can be married at the age of nine, particularly when parents need to settle loans.

Forced marriages negativelt affect the development of young girls and exacerbates gender inequality in society. The education of the young girls is cut short, limiting their job prospects and making the situation even difficult for them to escape the unwanted marriage.

There are also health concerns. Young girls get pregnant before their bodies and reproductive organs have fully matured. This can contribute to complications during child birth.

Related to their health, there is also a higher risk of contracting HIV and AIDS from the old men who may have contracted the disease from previous marriages. Because the young girls are economically dependant on the husband, they can not negotiate safe sex or demand fidelity.

Added to this, there are severe psychological and emotional consequences. Girls forced into marriage tend to be isolated from their friends. The practice is also founded on power and can therefore lead to domestic violence.

Forced marriage deliberately or is otherwise ignorant of the provision of the law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises that consent cannot be “free and full” when one of the parties involved is not mature to make an informed decision about a life partner. Article 3 of CEDAW further stipulates that: “All appropriate measures shall be taken…towards the eradication of prejudice and the abolition of all other practices which are based on the idea of inferiority of women”.

At regional level, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development signed in 2008 commits states to ensure “that girls enjoy the same rights as boys and are protected from harmful cultural attitudes and practices in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.”

The Protocol calls on SADC countries to “take measures including legislation, where appropriate, to discourage traditional norms, including social, economic, cultural and political practices which legitimise and exacerbate the persistence and tolerance of gender based violence with a view to eliminate them”.

In order to end the practice of forced marriage, prevention is key. The legal frameworks mentioned above must be fully implemented. Beyond that, awareness campaigns among parents and other stakeholders should highlight the negative impacts of forced marriages. Constant sensitisation of both males and females in communities through advocacy, communication, information and education is urgent. Such initiatives must also involve men, as they are often the main decision makers.

Further, parents should allow girls to finish their schooling. Education will give them more opportunities and independence. In different communities, women and girls who have been victims of forced marriage and other harmful practices can come together and talk about their traumatic experiences in public to discourage custodians of culture and girls from consenting to harmful practices. The media should also follow reports on stories until the policy-makers and other stakeholders act on the problem.

Society must take collective responsibility to look out for this practice which violates young women’s rights. Although the custom is deeply entrenched in some communities, it’s time for practice has long passed. Protecting the future of our girls is all up to all of us.

Saeanna Chingamuka works with the Gender and Media Diversity Centre. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service series for the 16 Days of Activism.

 

 


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