In modern times, African cultural practices have come under the spotlight and in particular, practices that have negative social consequences. One of these cultural practices is Ukuthwala – the “kidnapping” of young women by a group of men and forcing them into marriage, usually with older men, without any agreement from the women’s side. The act of Ukuthwala is common in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal rural areas and usually performed by amaXhosa and amaZulu respectively. Is Ukuthwala merely a cultural practice that should not be questioned or is it simply a crime against women in a country where gender-based violence has reached catastrophic levels?
Ukuthwala began around the 1880s in South Africa and was intended to start and build families. It was practised by our ancestors, but it did not involve rape or any form of abuse against young women as it is today. During that time, Ukuthwala consisted of a “fake abduction” where the bride-to-be was taken, with consent, to the groom’s homestead, with marriage plans already in place.
The bride was slowly introduced into a married-life over a period of time. This could be akin to the bride being “swept off her feet” by the groom and was a happy event that occurred to cement family relations.
Today, however, the motives have changed. Older men use Ukuthwala for lecherous reasons while the brides’ families see Ukuthwala as a means for obtaining money. Ultimately the most important aspect of today’s practice of Ukuthwala that is missing is the consenting age of the bride.
According to a report released by Statistics South Africa in 2017 shows that child marriage involving girls aged between 12 and 17 is common in South Africa. KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) has over 25 000 young women who have been forced into marriage while the Eastern Cape has over 10 000 young women who were forced into marriage, KZN has the highest number of child marriages.
South Africa’s Constitution has passed a law that protects children from harmful practices, but Ukuthwala is still taking place in the rural parts of South Africa. This can be seen in the story of a 19-year-old woman from Dutywa in the Eastern Cape who was abducted and forced into marriage in July 2020.
The way Ukuthwala is performed today is illegal and harmful to the lives of young women with many cases not being reported to the police. Young women who have been abducted usually suffer physical and sexual abuse as they are forced to marry men old enough to be their fathers.
Ukuthwala takes away their childhood and deprives young women of education because when they are abducted they are forbidden from attending school. The victims of Ukuthwala come from poor families whose parents agree to the practice in order to rid themselves of poverty.
Kings, Chiefs and other community leaders need to educate young women about their rights. They should also use their positions of power to raise awareness against inhumane acts that are done in the name of Ukuthwala. Young women who have experienced Ukuthwala should report it at any police station or they can call the Commission for Gender Equality on Child Marriages. Xhosa and Zulu people need to stop using the cultural practice as an excuse to abduct young women. I strongly believe that cultural practices should never be accepted as an excuse for violating the rights and freedom of young women. Ukuthwala is a crime – not a cultural practice.