Source: Destiny Connect
With arguably one of the world's most progressive constitutions, SA women are infinitely more liberated than their African counterparts. But cultural practices like 'ukuthwala', and dire poverty mean women in some pockets of society are left exposed and vulnerable to being treated as commodities.

The Sowetan newspaper last week ran with a piece about controversial SABC acting chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng who, last week, was presented with 10 young, semi-naked women who had been rounded up from around Thohoyandou in Limpopo to be offered up as "gifts" to the SABC's second-in-command.

Event co-ordinator and Mudzi executive secretary, Humbelani Nemakonde, confirmed that Motsoeneng was given a wife in recognition of his commitment to his job and for understanding the strategic objectives of the national broadcaster.

"All the girls were there with their parents. Their parents knew what was going to happen and they all agreed. That is how it works in Tshivenda culture," he told The Sowetan.

Vanessa Mutswari, a 22-year-old human resources student, caught the eye of the already-married Motsoeneng who allegedly asked for her cellphone number and, according to Mutswari, "promised to help [her] career in the future".

While Motsoeneng has denied asking for her number and maintains he accepted the "gifts", which included a cow and its calf, in "recognition" of Tshivenda culture, cultural activists have reacted with outrage.

Nomagugu Ngobese, a cultural activist and chairman of the Nomkhubulwane Culture and Youth Development Organisation, says culture shouldn't be distorted to serve an individual's personal interests.

"I'm against that parody because in our culture, as ethnic South Africans, we know if a boy is looking to propose – that is natural – but someone mustn't be forced to love you.

" We must not distort our culture to further our own interests at the end of the day," she argued.

Constitutionally speaking

In an article penned for the Southern African Legal Institution, MJ Maluleke questions whether the constitution is enough to protect gender equality, particularly among women living in rural areas and within communities with deeply entrenched traditional practices.

"Customary practices such as Ukuthwala, virginity testing, widow's rituals, and others are entrenched, and in practice take precedence over equality in the villages where they are carried out.

"These compromises on women's rights to equality can thus be interpreted to mean that women, as opposed to men, do not have inherent rights."

An old tradition practiced predominantly in the Nguni culture, 'ukuthwala' is a form of abduction where a young girl is forcibly removed from her home and taken to the family home of a man, usually considerably older, who wants to marry her. Lobola is negotiated and paid, and the young bride is essentially sold to him.

Ngobese says this practice is not part of African heritage, but a practice that has become habitually engrained in some African families.

"There are things that are habitual and people say they're culturally defined when they're not, they are distorting culture," she says.

Sugar daddy syndrome

The latest HIV infection rate among schoolgirls, which hovers somewhere around 28% compared to a 4% infection rate among schoolboys, tells the story of how young women are trading their bodies and sexuality to older men either in exchange for luxury items, money and in extreme cases, to feed poverty-stricken households.

A large-scale study conducted by Oxford University last year found that access to child grants could reduce HIV risk for teenage girls as fewer would be pressurised to sell sex for money.

In a statement, Professor Mark Orkin, from the School of Public and Development Management, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, said that while access to social grants won't translate into safer sexual habits among teens, "what they can do is to provide enough financial security for girls that they do not have to choose their sexual partners through economic necessity."

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