A 15-year-old girl from the OR Tambo District in the Eastern Cape has told the Human Rights Commission (HRC) of her abduction, forced marriage and rape by a much older stranger, who took her more than 1000 kilometres from her home to live with him in North West Province.
The girl, one of eight interviewed yesterday by the commission at a child care centre in Palmerton, near Lusikisiki, was dramatically rescued by a security guard sent to fetch her by Executive Mayor of OR Tambo District Municipality, Ms Zoleka Capa.
Capa, founder of the special child care centre for girls, was tipped off about the teenager’s plight when the girl managed to phone her former teacher while her supposed “husband” was at work.
Someone had pre-arranged the abduction according to the custom of ukuthwalwa – meaning, “to be carried” – the girl told the HRC investigators.
She was forced to make the man’s bed, cook for him and fulfill all kinds of marital duties he required from a wife, including sex, the 15-year-old said.
“I was very afraid. I didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t stop crying for weeks,” she said.
She was one of eight girls interviewed by Eastern Cape HRC manager Pheaqane Moreroa, education officer Aubrey Mdazana and legal officer Loyiso Mpondo.
Earlier this month, when her supposed “husband” went to work on the mines, she had a moment on her own and called her former teacher back home. The teacher phoned the Executive Mayor who, after speaking to the girl, immediately sent her private security to the rescue.
“She met my security at 5pm and arrived at Mthatha at midnight the following day. When I met her, she was in a terrible emotional state. When she saw her teacher, the child fainted and collapsed on the floor,” Capa recalls.
Now, the shy teenager is slowly adapting to her new environment. “I feel safe here. I have made good friends already.” The girl smiled as she sat next to the centre manager from the district municipality, Asanda Masina, holding her hand.
Earlier, when the HRC team arrived, Masina had called her and the seven other girls into the courtyard. They stopped their netball game and formed a circle around her. They stood with their heads bowed and their arms around each other for a few minutes.
Masina explained they might be asked difficult questions, but it was important they share their stories. Shortly afterwards, the girls gathered in Masina’s office, where they held the meeting with the HRC team.
The 15-year-old told of being sent to a nearby village under the pretext of picking up money for her brother. “But when I got there, a young woman asked me if I was aware I was being taken. Another woman told me: ‘You are going nowhere’.”
The woman handed her a plastic bag full of clothing for her traditional wedding.
As the girls related their stories, it emerged that forced marriages in such areas as Lusikisiki and Flagstaff are not uncommon.
The HRC was spurred into action following media reports and complaints received from people living in the affected areas, said Mdazana.
“It’s been a tradition for a very, very long time, but the way it’s manifesting today is what we’re investigating. It’s raising a public outcry. Girls as young as 13 are being abducted and forced to marry men as old as their grandfathers.
“We are here to see what we can do to end this practice,” he said.
Executive Mayor Capa said it was scary that the men, some aged 55 or 60, who took part in the abductions, were ordering virgins born around 1994 and complaining that children born before that were too old.
“These girls are being raped for months and months by men they’ve never known. It’s believed their souls are being taken away and they lose their desire to leave because they’ve lost themselves. It’s believed they will be subservient forever.
“They do lose a lot of confidence, they seem to lack exposure and the ability to be assertive.
“They struggle to learn again because they stopped going to school during the period of forced marriage.
“But it’s wonderful to look at their pictures now compared with when they came in. They’re doing so much better,” said Capa.
Although traditional leaders in the area agreed there was a culture of arranged marriage following discussions between families, abduction and rape were not part of it, she said.
The 15-year-old has returned to a safe haven in the area where she grew up. Yet, she hasn’t seen her family since the abduction.
Masina said this might change in future. “Her family has recognised what has happened was wrong. Arrangements are being made for them to meet,” the centre manager said.
* Photos available