You are here

Home » News and Views » South Africa: Campaign tackles myth of girl brides as fabled HIV cure

South Africa: Campaign tackles myth of girl brides as fabled HIV cure

Publication Date: 
May 27, 2012

KwaCele, South Africa - The landscape of the rural Eastern Cape in South Africa has a haunting beauty. A myriad of round turquoise huts scatter across the land in a series of endless villages.

Yet these villages are also home to a terrible and devastating traditional practice that destroys children's lives and tears families apart.

In these villages, girls as young as 12 are kidnapped by older men and forced to 'marry.' It is accepted as part of the Xhosa people's culture. It has continued unabated for decades.

Ukuthwala, which translates as 'to pick up' or 'to take,' is used to justify the abduction of girls. In many cases the parents have given their consent in exchange for a bride price.

But a concerted campaign to educate these isolated communities of the illegality of under-aged sex and abduction appears to be paying off.

Nombasa Gxuluwe, born in the Eastern Cape, is a field worker for the World Aids Campaign (WAC), and has dedicated herself to trying to end what is essentially the buying and selling of brides, many of them still children.

Nombasa and many other organizations have spent hours talking to the men in the villages, trying to make them understand that the rules are different now.

For many, like Timothy Nyawuse, there was simply no awareness that what was being done was wrong.

"We apologize for that as we did not know we were breaking the law," he tells CNN.

Complicating the matter is a chilling, modern belief, as Nombasa explains: "There is a myth that if you sleep with a young girl who is a virgin and as a man you are HIV positive then HIV can be cured. That is why they are focusing on these young girls."

Nombasa said many of the male abductors are older men, widowed by HIV. They then look for a younger "virgin bride" and invariably end up infecting them too.

The tradition has its roots in arranged marriages where parents or village elders have the final say on who girls should marry.

And when men started taking younger and younger wives, elders in villages with no electricity of running water did not realize the modern world would see.

In the documentary, "Ukuthwala – Stolen Innocence," made by WAC, a girl living in the village of Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape tells her story of being a victim of this practice.

"The lady from next door called me and asked me if I wanted to get married. I said no. She said if I refused they would take me by force and beat me up.

"The next night the lady came to my house and took me to the river. There were seven people waiting there. They made me go with them to the house where the man lived. I couldn't believe this was happening to me. That I was getting married.

"There was this old man in the room and he told me, "I paid cattle for you and whether you like it or not you are my wife."

"He picked me up and put me on the bed and undressed me. He also got undressed and tried to force himself on me. I fought him but he pushed me down and forced my legs open. That's when he slept with me."

For those who have the courage to escape their illegal 'marriages' there is a place of refuge. The Palmerton Care Centre is housed in the grounds of a Methodist Church, in Lusikisiki.

It is here that social workers first counsel the young girls and then help them integrate back into the community.

It is no easy journey. Many have had years out of school. Some are infected with HIV. Others are no longer wanted back by their families, accused of bringing shame on them for not staying in the marriage.

Nombasa said: "They see them as rebellious, uncontrollable, because they are not obeying the rules of the parents, of the community."

The National Prosecuting Authority in South Africa is making a concerted effort in the villages surrounding KwaCele to show that such practices are illegal. Eleven men in the past year have been charged with abduction and under-age sex. None of the cases have yet reached court.

Even more promising, Nombasa said that since December 2011 there has not been a new case reported. She said: "It looks like we are winning."