She holds up her hands to shield her face as they drag her from her home. She digs her feet into the soil, but it's not enough to save her. She is afraid, a Jephthah's daughter, about to face a vow someone else made on her behalf. Mourning for her virginity, for choice, for everything that will be taken from her. Her heart is barren, a suffering tomb, never to be loved or valued. A young girl of fourteen, sold and given away. She screams one final time, but it's not enough to stop them. She will weep, cover her mouth, and cry her silent screams as they take her away.
Ukuthwalwa. The stories will break your heart. It's happening every day in rural South Africa. Girls as young as fourteen are being forced to marry men double their age. In some cases, men as old as fifty-five take these virgin girls as their brides. These daughters are abducted and forced to marry a stranger, and then they are raped. Their new "husbands" will not take "no" for an answer. The "brides" are merely legal slaves under this custom.
The practice of ukuthwala began as a way to fast-track marriages for pregnant brides or couples forbidden to wed because the prospective groom could not afford a dowry payment. The custom is deeply embedded in some South African communities. But over the years, it has been used to exploit young girls and further fuel the human trafficking reality in South Africa.
In 2010, a thirty-two year-old man kidnapped a fourteen year-old girl under the guise of ukuthwala and forced her to marry him. She was then raped, abused, and exploited. The South African government acted against the man who kidnapped her and he was sentenced to prison for rape, assault, and human trafficking.
While the case was seen as a huge victory against this practice, workers in safe houses who assist victims and survivors of ukuthwala shake their heads with sadness. The custom still continues. Young lives are ruined at the hands of so-called customs and all the while, traditional community leaders are protesting the abolishment of the custom.
This is the reality in some rural South African communities, but all over the world, the epidemic of child brides is growing, fed by the traditions and customs of patriarchy.
Custom and tradition guide our lives. Different nations hold to different customs and traditions, like Thanksgiving in the US or Chinese New Year in the East, but custom should not override godly living or human compassion and dignity.
The oppression of women began when Adam and Eve stepped out of the Garden of Eden. And often, customs and traditions are the very swords used to exploit and devastate the human rights of women.
Last weekend, my husband and I watched Suffragette. The words of those courageous women, and the change they brought, inspired me. And yet, in many societies and communities, women remained enslaved.
A hundred years ago, tradition and custom across the British Empire taught that women were inferior to men, and that allowing them to vote would break down the very fabric of society. And yet, there were those who fought against those traditions and won.
We must remember that just because something is culturally accepted does not mean it is right or godly. Just because the world has historically marginalized women does not mean that patriarchy is godly.
As children of God, we should be committed to ensuring the equality, worth, and dignity of all human beings, especially the historically oppressed.
We can fight to change traditions. We can raise awareness, write articles, and use our gifts to bring that change. We can pray warrior prayers for hurting souls and live out an active faith that seeks justice for women.
I have heard the stories of child brides. I have heard the pain, right here in my own country. I don't want to turn away.
Right now, it is estimated that 142 million girls will be married as children. Over 700 million women who are married today were married as children.
Will you join me in praying for our precious sisters? Will you fight for justice on their behalf?