Cultural complexity is an integral dimension of health, forcing practitioners to strike a balance between being relativistic and intervening when social traditions threaten a population’s health and human rights. South Africa has been thrust into this tight spot, as a cultural practice called ukuthwala facilitates abduction and sex trafficking of adolescent girls, according to a Nov. 29 article by the Mail & Guardian.  

Originally a stepping stone toward marriage for consenting couples, ukuthwala has now evolved to include “the abduction of a girl or a young woman by a man and his accomplices with the intention of forcing her family to agree to a marriage,” the media outlet said. This of course constitutes a grave denial of women’s rights to choose their partners and determine what happens to their bodies.

According to Girls Not Brides, 1% of South African girls under 15 are married, as are 6% of those under 18. However, these figures do not account for differences between rural regions, where ukuthwala is particularly problematic, and urban areas, perhaps obscuring the gravity of the situation.

Though legislation like the Trafficking in Persons Act and minimum age requirements for marriage make ukuthwala illegal, these are hardly effective, expert Charlene May argued. Indeed, the situation is complicated by legal loopholes, the lack of a dedicated police force to combat the issue and, of course, persistent cultural appreciation for ukuthwala.

“It’s not enough that we have a law on paper if we haven’t innovated it in the form of educating people as we normally do with drugs and other things,” May said.

The Mail & Guardian’s investigation comes during the global reproductive health and human rights communities’ observation of “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence,” which lasts from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10. This year’s theme--“Leave No One Behind: End Violence against Women and Girls”–is particularly pertinent to ukuthwala. Let’s change the conversation, using culture to reduce GBV–not create it–and make sure no girl anywhere is left behind.  

Photo courtesy Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

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