‘Today it would be called rape’: a historical and contextual examination of forced marriage and violence in the Eastern Cape

Authors Nyasha Karimakwenda

ISSN: 1996-2088
Affiliations: None
Source: Acta Juridica, 2013, p. 339 – 356


The practice of ukuthwala has received considerable attention from the media, government, and civil society over the past few years. Reports assert that there has been a marked resurgence in the practice, in a distorted and destructive form, where older men target and violate vulnerable young girls, forcing them into marriage. Many of the coercive aspects of ukuthwala have been denounced as newly deviant and antithetical to the way marriage traditions were practiced in the past. This paper argues that these depictions of ukuthwala and traditional marriage are inaccurate. An examination of historical sources concerning Xhosa-speaking peoples in the Eastern Cape reveals the deeply rooted and longstanding linkages between marriage and violence. Although varying in prevalence over time, violence has been sanctioned by local understandings of consent and interpersonal relationships. The specific concepts that permit violence against girls and women have not only existed in conjunction with marriage, but also operate in various forms of abuse against females, such as group rape and child sexual abuse. Understanding the different manifestations of local conceptions of violence assists in explaining the embeddedness of gender-based violence today, as well as the immense challenges in eradicating it.