Page last updated at 01:31 GMT, Wednesday, 14 October 2009 02:31 UK

Stolen youth of SA's child brides

Children playing at the Palmerton centre
It can be a long road to recovery for some of the victims of ukuthwalwa

By Pumza Fihlani
BBC News, Lusikisiki

At the age of 14, Nolizwi Sinama set off from her aunt's home to a neighbouring village. She thought she had been sent on a routine chore. In fact, she was on her way to be married to a 42-year-old man.

Her aunt and brother had arranged the marriage, taking three cows as a bride price, or ilobolo as it is known in South Africa.

Three years later, Ms Sinama says the experience left her feeling worthless.

"They stole my innocence and my childhood," she says.

Her husband forced her to sleep with him, and she became pregnant a month after she was abducted.

Nangamso Gezana
I think that men are evil
Nangamso Gezana

"I begged them to not to take me. I told them I wanted to continue with my studies that I wasn't ready to be a wife but they wouldn't let me go," she says.

"They told me that I didn't have a say in the matter - one of them said all the arrangements were made with my family's consent."

Ms Sinama says she told her aunt that her husband forced her into having sex, but was told that a failed marriage would disgrace the family.

She finally fled after discovering her husband was HIV positive.

Ms Sinama, like numerous other girls in South Africa's Eastern Cape Province, was a victim of ukuthwalwa - a cultural practice among people from the Xhosa ethnic group to abduct girls for marriage.

Prince Xhanti Sigcawu, a member of the Xhosa royal family, defends the custom.

"Ukuthwalwa like all our other customs was and remains an important part of who we are as people," he says.

It is an abuse for a girl below the age of 18 to get married
Adenrele in Ibadan, Nigeria

"There is nothing wrong with the practice when it is done in the right way - which is when the girl is at the right age and the parents are involved and agree."

But girls as young as 11 years old are being forced into marriage, and calls are growing for the practice to be banned.

'Like a slave'

Ms Sinama and her two-year-old son are now being cared for by the Palmerton Children's Care Centre, near Lusikisiki, 200km south of Durban.

Nolizwi Sinama
I knew that if I stayed I would get sick and die
Nolizwi Sinama

The centre used to be solely for orphans and abused children but opened its doors to abduction victims after pleas from various communities.

Twelve of the 100 children at the centre are recent victims of abduction. They have been living at centre since early this year.

Nangamso Gezana, 15, says she was abducted in May in Lusikisiki and taken to Rustenburg, where she and her new husband lived in shack for one month.

"I don't know how many times I thought of killing myself," she says.

"I was like a slave, cooking and cleaning for a man I did not even want. A man who did bad things to me and would not stop even when I cried.

"I think that men are evil."

Both Ms Sinama and Ms Gezana escaped their abductors with the help of the Palmerton centre and the police.

"One of my teachers got word that I had been abducted, she contacted me while I was in Rustenburg and asked me if I wanted to come back home," says Ms Gezana.

Communities where the practice is rife protect each other
Mzukisi Fatyela
Eastern Cape police

"She contacted the centre; they made arrangements for the Eastern Cape police to fetch me up at a police station in Rustenburg.

"The man I married had gone to work, I left without any of my clothes. I have not seen that him since that day."

Ms Sinama says she knew she had to leave when she learned that her husband was suffering from HIV.

"I saw his medical certificate in the house, it was written HIV positive. I knew that if I stayed I would get sick and die," she says.

Police's problem

The custom remains strong in some areas, but it divides opinion.

Although Xhosa royals defend it, Chief Pathekile Holomisa, of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa, says the practice should be discouraged.

South Africa map

"It has been corrupted by greed for material purposes. It has no place in today's society," he says.

Asanda Masina, of the Palmerton centre, says the practice is still strong in rural areas.

"The mindset has not changed - people do not see anything wrong with abducting girls," she says.

Despite efforts by government, police and child welfare organisations, she says ukuthwalwa is still condoned as a necessary part of a woman's life by some traditional societies.

Which is a problem for the police.

Supt Mzukisi Fatyela of the Eastern Cape force says detection of such crimes is difficult.

"Communities where the practice is rife protect each other, so it is not easy to make arrests," he says.

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