Speech by Hon Masefako Dikgale in NCOP on 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence

Honourable Chairperson
Honourable Minister
Honourable Members, Comrades and Distinguished Guests

I will be speaking about cultural practices and quasi customs that directly affect the lives of specifically women and children.

Honourable Chairperson, any discussion of custom must start off by pointing out the difficulties and limitations inherent in the idea of custom itself. The main source of information about indigenous custom before colonization comes from oral tradition. This means that systems of oral customs have the ability to allow forgotten rules to sink into oblivion, while simultaneously accepting new rules to take their place.

In addition to its link with both contemporary and ancient practice, customary rules can sometimes overlap and contradict one another, without detracting from their legitimacy as customary tradition. The practice of ukuthwala, or child abduction and forced marriages, originated from Xhosa customs of arranged marriages. It is contended that the intending bridegroom, together with one or two friends, would waylay the intended bride in the neighbourhood of her own home forcibly take her to the young men’s home.

Sometimes the girl would be caught unaware, but in many instances she would be caught according to plan and agreement between her parents and the groom’s parents. On the same day of ukuthwala, those who had effected the ukuthwala custom were required to report to the girl’s home that her parents need not be worried as the girl was safe with them. She was immediately placed in the midst and care of the woman folk and was treated with the utmost kindness and respect. This was one of the inducements for her to wish to go ahead with the marriage and be part of the caring family that ukuthwala her. A friendly relationship would be established between the two families and the status of the girl was immediately elevated to that of a young wife. Where ukuthwala took place and there was no offer of marriage a fine of one beast was imposed by custom and in those cases the ukuthwala girl would be returned home to her parents and there would be no marriage.

The practice was used for a number of purposes. These included to force the father of the girl to give consent ; to hasten matters if the woman was pregnant ; to persuade the woman of the seriousness of the intent to marry her; or to avoid the payment of lobola.

Sadly, this is not how the custom is currently practised.. It has now degenerated into a practice where men sometimes force young girls and their families into marriage negotiations by making them participate in sexual acts mostly against their will. This is a corrupted version and a distortion of an age-old tradition and custom which does not reflect the actual practices of traditional communities. This practice highlights the risks of HIV infection - particularly where the perception persists that sleeping with a virgin is a cure from HIV. Ukuthwala has now come under scrutiny for endangering the lives of many young females by forcing them to engage in sexual acts with men who are in most cases up to 20 years their senior. The large age difference, more extensive sexual history of the men and coercive circumstances makes negotiating safer sex options for the girls very difficult.

Ukuthwala has come under scrutiny from the South African Commission for Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities as being a cover up for the abduction and rape of young women.

In a meeting of the Minister of Social Development and the House of Traditional Leaders with traditional leaders in the Eastern Cape it was stressed that this practice had not and should not involve children. The current practice as being applied to girls between 12 and 15 years old, directly and indirectly impacts upon their development, education, life skills, and risk of exposure to early pregnancy and HIV and Aids.

The Department of Social Development has strategies for early intervention against this gender based violence, where children are identified as being vulnerable or at risk of harm and removed into alternate care. These prevention and early intervention programmes attempts to focus on retaining the family unit, developing appropriate parenting skills and provision of psychological and therapeutic services for the children, as well as preventing future neglect, exploitation or abuse. However, the challenges include the fact that many arrangements, being made with parental consent, are not reported.

Fortunately, an integrated awareness campaign has been conducted by the Department of Social Development and the Police on the legislation protecting women and children, emphasizing that failure to adhere to the law would result in prosecution.

This matter relates to the rights of children as set out in the Constitution, as well as the Domestic Violence Act 116 of 1998, the Criminal Law Amendment Act 32 of 2000, the Criminal Law Amendment Act 105 of 1997, the South African Schools Act 84 of 1996, and the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998. The Children’s Act specifies that a child has the right not to be subjected to social, cultural and religious practices that are detrimental to his or her well being. A child below the minimum age of marriage may not be married or engaged, nor may a child above the minimum age be married or engaged without his or her consent. Chapter 7 of this Act focuses on protection of children and would regard ukuthwala as exploitation while chapter 17 focuses on child abduction, giving effect to the Hague Convention on International Abduction.

The rights of children, as set out in the Constitution, the UN Convention and the African Charter, must be upheld at all times. Child protection must be child-centred, with all decisions and actions being taken in the child’s best interests and all services must be aligned with principles of Batho Pele and Ubuntu.

Honourable Chairperson, another abominable practice against women which is labelled as a custom or tradition but which cannot be condoned, is that of the burning of so-called witches. The phenomenon, which has become "a national scourge," according to the Commission on Gender Equality, is centered in the poverty-stricken Limpopo Province.

Witch-hunting is closely tied not only to prevailing superstitions, but to socio-economic pressures, natural disasters, and personal jealousies. And hunger, poverty, and unemployment can create jealousies that can quickly turn to anger and vengeance which lead to ritual killings related to witchcraft. Such ritual murders often bring "retribution" against innocents accused of witchcraft. Especially vulnerable are defenceless elderly women, against whom the actions are taken without resistance.

This brings me to another abhorrent practice which does not deserve the title of tradition or custom and that is killing of especially children for muti purposes. The word “muti” derives from the Zulu word for medicine and involves the use of human body parts and vital organs to produce medicine.

It has its origin in a deep-founded cultural belief that body parts make the medicine more effective and that it can solve any problem, from poverty to health issues and that it can increase the luck and health of a person who consumes it.

Most muti victims are innocent children who are lured, murdered and dismembered. Children are primary targets as they are susceptible to attacks due to their being weaker and defenceless. Young children are also targeted as it is believed that due to their young age, they have used up very little of their good luck and health.

Numbers are difficult to collect as the investigation of muti murders is complex and difficult to undertake as they are shrouded by a code of silence, where people are fearful of speaking out, allowing the practice to continue with little or no consequence for the perpetrators. Many witnesses do not come forward as they are afraid that the muti murderers will seek revenge upon them.

Honourable Chairperson, something must be done to improve conditions. The people must be provided with alternatives to muti medicine as many muti murders are a result of lack of access to professional medicines and healthcare. Citizens must be taught about the criminal aspects of muti medicine, as well as their ineffectiveness. With an informed public, action can be taken to prevent further muti killings and provide alternative means to healthcare. Innocent lives are being lost for beliefs that anointing oneself with another person’s organs and body parts will provide power, health and luck. United and educated communities can help put an end to muti murders and killings.

In conclusion, South Africa is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women which requires states to eliminate gender discrimination. The Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa enjoins States Parties to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of women and men with a view to achieving the elimination of harmful cultural and traditional practices and contains several references to the obligation to eradicate violence against women. The South African Bill of Rights protects women`s rights to gender equality and to bodily and psychological integrity. South Africa, therefore, has both international and constitutional obligations to eradicate violence against women and to create effective legal mechanisms to protect women against violence. Wherever reference is made to women, one can obviously also add the word “children” as they are as vulnerable, if not more, than women.

I thank you.