Documentary on Ukuthwala raises important questions

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“Ukuthwala: Stolen Innocence” (watch below) is a 2011 documentary produced by the World AIDS campaign and directed by Fiona Summers and Damien Steward. The documentary focuses on ukuthwala, a practice where girls and women often are abducted and forced into marriage. Historian Elizabeth Thornberry notes that “men who have committed these abductions defend them as customary, and some traditional leaders agree. However, representatives from the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) and from women’s human rights groups have asserted that such forced marriages go against custom.”

Last year, ukuthwala was in the national spotlight when the Jezile case came before the Western Cape High Court. Mvumeleni Jezile was sentenced to 22 years imprisonment after being found guilty of kidnapping, assaulting and raping a 14-year old girl. Jezile claimed his actions were excusable as they were part of the custom of ukuthwala. In an analysis of the Jezile case, Nyasha Karimakwenda asks, “Are rape and force legitimate parts of custom? When a man raises ukuthwala as a defence to rape, assault and trafficking, what consideration should these assertions be given? The answers to these questions are not simple, and are dependent on what one’s view or definition of culture is.”

While defenders of ukuthwala say it is a custom and therefore should not be challenged, critics like gender analyst Nomboniso Gasa argue that ukuthwala is a practice that is not in line with customary law but rather a crime informed by a complex set of factors linked to violence against women.

Summers’ and Steward’s documentary explores some of the issues above, focussing on the Lusikisiki area in the Eastern Cape. Royston Martin, the Executive Director of the documentary explained, “you can’t make a film like this without mutual trust and that takes time. The community of Lusikisiki not only supported it , but worked with us and that’s a vital part of ‘Communication for Development’ – you know , a social process that puts dialogue at its centre.” He added that “it is also about seeking change at different levels including listening, building trust, sharing knowledge and skills, building policies, and debating and learning for sustained and meaningful change.”

The documentary features interviews with victims of ukuthwala, nurses and police. It also documents community forums in which community members contest the origins and legitimacy of ukuthwala. While some community members argue that ukuthwala is part of a “timeless tradition”, others argue that it is not custom but a crime. One issue with the documentary is that it devotes little attention to this contestation of ukuthwala as a custom, instead portraying most of those opposing the practice as coming from a ‘human rights’ stand-point. In reality, many of those who have spoken out against ukuthwala in the documentary and in other sources critique it from a point of view that combines customary law and human rights. Another issue is that the documentary argues that “cracks in the old order” are only just beginning to show and women are only now gathering the courage to fight the practice. However, Thornberry’s work shows there is a long tradition resistance to ukuthwala, with people questioning its status as a ‘custom’ as far back as the 1800s. Nevertheless, the documentary raises important questions about ukuthwala and is well worth watching.

Watch “Ukuthwala: Stolen Innocence” on Vimeo.

opinion-grey Tara Weinberg is a researcher in the Rural Women’s Action Research Programme, at the Centre for Law and Society, University of Cape Town.
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