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Bride abductions 'a distortion' of South Africa's culture

When cows are traded for an unwilling bride, rural Zulu women lose their freedom, and more. Called thwala, the practice is often abused, activists say.

July 12, 2012|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times

NORTHWEST OF HOWICK, South Africa — — She was named Democracy in Zulu, at a time when her country had none.

A few years later, the constitution born of the historic South African election that ended apartheid made Nonkululeko "free" and "equal." But the eight cows paid for her as a bride price mean that she is neither.

At 14, Nonkululeko fell victim to a secretive cultural practice called thwala, or bride abduction, that continues here in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal. Originally an acceptable means for two young Zulu people in love to wed when their families opposed the match, thwala is often abused to victimize isolated rural women and enrich male relatives, activists say.

"It's a distortion of our culture," said Sizani Ngubane, of the Rural Women's Movement, a nongovernmental rights organization. "It is not supposed to be like this."

Seven years ago, the uncle who helped raise Nonkululeko colluded with an admirer seven years her senior. In return for the cows, her uncle ordered the girl to get into a car with him, her suitor and three other men as she returned from the village well carrying water. She was driven to a forest, where the uncle left her with the men, who said she must marry her suitor. She refused.

She says they beat her with a leather whip called a shambock and took her to the top of a mountain, where three of them held her down as her would-be husband raped her. (Last names, their villages and other identifying details of women in this article are not being used to protect the identities of victims of sexual assault.)

"It was agonizing physically, but even emotionally I felt, 'Why don't they just kill me?' I was screaming and crying and saying even if they forced me, I didn't love him," Nonkululeko said.

She was whisked away to his family house, raped again and forced to write a letter to her grandmother, who also had raised her, saying she loved him and wanted to wed.

"It was painful writing the letter. I was shaking and my heart was very sore."

The exchange of lobolo, or bride price, is supposed to be a long, formal process intricately knitting two families, but in this case the deal was swift, and Nonkululeko's grandmother, who opposed the match, was ignored. The arrival of the cows at Nonkululeko's family home sealed the child's fate.

Seven years into a loveless marriage, she says each sexual encounter feels like a repeat of that first rape.

Thwala goes on in parts of KwaZulu-Natal, a predominantly Zulu province with high mountains tumbling to the sea, and the Eastern Cape, in the south of the country, a predominantly Xhosa region often seen asSouth Africa's poorest and most disadvantaged province.

Although forced thwala is illegal — it's rape and abduction under the criminal code — the law is almost never enforced because it is seen by most police and senior male family members as a cultural and domestic matter. Thwala is also illegal if the girl is below the age of consent, 16.

Nonkululeko's plight highlights the tension in South Africa between a liberal constitution that is supposed to guarantee equality and freedom, and traditional practices — some of which have been warped by time and poverty — that make a mockery of those promises for many women in the sub-Saharan continent's most affluent country.

"If a male relative sees a man with cattle," Nonkululeko said, "he can just sell you for cows."

***

In the tawny hills of KwaZulu-Natal, a girl walks along a gravel road. The child — maybe 11 or 12 — breaks into a trot, then a run, arms flapping exuberantly as if to take off, a vision of joyful freedom.

When Nonkululeko was that age, each silver machine that flew in the sky above her mountains held a secret promise. A high achiever at school, excelling in math and science, she dreamed of becoming a pilot.

Her mother died when she was 4. Her father was never in her life. Her grandmother drummed into her that her most valued attribute was her virginity. The child submitted to regular virginity tests. When she was 11 and 12, she performed in the traditional bare-breasted "reed dance" of virgins at the palace for a local king. They were some of her happiest moments.

"The belief is that if you are a Zulu maiden, your body is pure ... and you can show off your body with no disgrace," she said.

Her grandmother said to stay away from boys. When a young stranger from another village approached her as she walked home from school and declared his love, Nonkululeko fled. Whenever she saw him after that, she hid.

"I used to hate what he was saying because all I was interested in was going to school. I used to hate him," Nonkululeko said.

Now she's married to that stranger, and several times a month, he forces her to have sex.

"He uses his strength and muscles and beats me.

"I have often thought of how to get out of it. I can't think of any option.... What I wish could happen is that they could give him back the cows and I could leave his house."

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