Every person has a legal right to choose who they marry but according to Statistics South Africa, over 91 000 girls in South Africa between the ages of 12 and 17 are already married, divorced or widowed, largely because they were forced into a relationship. Commission for Gender Equality legal director Marissa van Niekerk (MvN) speaks about the issue:
Vuk: What is forced marriage?
MvN: A forced marriage is a marriage entered without the free and valid consent of one or both parties. The pressure put on people to marry against their will can be physical or emotional (for example, when someone is made to feel that failure to enter marriage will bring shame to their family).
Vuk: What are the reasons for forced marriages?
MvN: The most common reason for forced child marriages is financial gain for the family. In some instances, it may happen because the parents do not want to deal with unwanted pregnancies. Lastly, some cultural beliefs state that girl children must not grow up without being married.
Vuk: What happens to the life of a young girl who is forced into marriage?
MvN: The young girl’s right to dignity is taken away. It is only when a person is treated with dignity that they feel worthy and important in society. Secondly, the girl is deprived of her right to freedom and security. Young women find themselves subjected to non-consensual sexual intercourse and are not given a choice regarding giving birth to children. They may also suffer physical and emotional abuse and may be refused access to education.
Vuk: Are forced marriages against the law?
MvN: This practice goes against the Marriages Act of 1961 and against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The ‘husband’ may be charged with statutory rape, rape, sexual assault, kidnapping or abduction. The relatives who forced the girl into marriage may face charges of sex exploitation and human trafficking.
Vuk: What can be done?
MvN: There is a need to intensify awareness campaigns. Traditional leaders must be encouraged to report forced marriages in their communities. Furthermore, the justice system needs to respond effectively to complaints, making immediate arrests and imposing harsher sentences. It is imperative that victims report the crime to the police. After this, contact must be made with the Department of Social Development for proper counselling and possible placement in a place of safety. Victims can approach the Commission for Gender Equality to assist with these processes.
If you need information about this matter call the Commission for Gender Equality on this number 0800 007 709.