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By: Kelly Haggart

At a community hall in rural KwaZulu-Natal, members of a group of adolescent girls called the Social Ills Fighters stand in front of 50 adults and live up to their name. The girls present a powerful digital story challenging a widely accepted traditional practice that could derail their lives.

In just over two minutes, their haunting multimedia creation traces the fate of an adolescent girl abducted and coerced into marriage, later abused and abandoned by her husband, and then rejected by her parents. The unflinching story is another brave step in the girls’ determined campaign against early and forced marriage.

Along the way, a remarkable community partnership has grown up around the girls and it has supported them in speaking out. Their efforts have inspired adults to finally address the community norms and legal loopholes allowing an often-harmful practice to persist.

Emboldened to tell their stories, the Social Ills Fighters may have helped rewrite the ending not only for themselves, but for many other girls across South Africa.

Early marriage in South Africa

Loskop is situated in a disadvantaged region with poor infrastructure and extensive poverty and unemployment. Most women are engaged in subsistence agriculture, and most men migrate for work. Only a lucky few have jobs on nearby commercial farms or in the tourism industry linked to the nearby Maloti-Drakensberg Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The researchers from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) who travelled to this isiZulu-speaking community at the foot of the Drakensberg Mountains, approximately 200 kilometers from Durban, were well aware of the disturbing statistics on early marriage in South Africa. But they weren’t aware that early and forced marriage was a particular problem in Loskop. Nor had they foreseen that their courageous young project partners would push the adults toward a policy breakthrough on the issue.

The scope of the problem

In 2016, a national survey found more than 83,000 girls aged 12 to 17 were married, divorced, separated, widowed, or cohabiting with men. More than one quarter lived in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal. A global scourge that violates children’s rights and limits their access to education, early marriage overwhelmingly affects girls over boys in South Africa, by a ratio of more than 12 to one. It exposes girls to pregnancy and motherhood before they are ready, and increases their vulnerability to sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, as well as intimate partner violence and other abuse.

South African legislation on marriage is based on many different laws, creating ambiguities and even contradictions.  Because of these legislative grey areas, the minimum age for marriage in the country is unclear, allowing underage marriage to continue in the country, often driven by the custom of lobola, or groom dowry. South Africa is in the process of revising the legislation to ensure that the minimum age for marriage for both boys and girls is set at 18 without exception.

From victims to agents of change: confronting gender-based violence

The researchers were part of a larger multi-year project using participatory visual methodology to study gender-based violence from girls’ perspectives in South Africa and Canada. Known as Networks for Change, the initiative is a partnership of International Partnerships for Sustainable Societies and is supported by IDRC and Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The project is co-led by two distinguished professors of education, Relebohile Moletsane at UKZN in Durban and Claudia Mitchell at McGill University in Montreal.

Moletsane and Mitchell joined forces with other scholars, community partners, and groups of girls in five rural areas in South Africa and eight Indigenous communities in Canada with high rates of sexual violence. In each community, they sought to challenge the “victim” stereotype. They wanted to show that girls are experts on their own lives and, given the opportunity, they are committed and effective activists for social change.

Lisa Wiebesiek
The road to the girls’ village of Loskop in KwaZulu-Natal

The researchers partnered with the Thembalethu Care Organization, a non-profit organization with deep roots in the community. The organization’s co-founder, Xoli Msimanga, helped recruit the 15 high-school girls, aged 15 to 19, who would name themselves the Social Ills Fighters. She also introduced the research team to the Amangwe Traditional Authority, the influential custodians of customary law in the area.

The girls define the problem

At the first workshop with the Social Ills Fighters in February 2017, the researchers didn’t set out to tackle early and forced marriage in particular; they left it to the girls to identify their key concerns.

“We didn’t jump right into sexual and gender-based violence,” says project co-ordinator Lisa Wiebesiek, research manager of the Centre for Visual Methodologies for Social Change at UKZN. Instead, they asked the girls to consider:

  • What are the challenges to girls’ safety in your community?

  • What are the things you would change to make girls safer?

  • What resources already exist in your community to support these changes?

  • How can we put these changes into action?

Classroom with some of the girls photovoice work, which they used as part of an introduction to various storytelling methods
The girls were introduced to various storytelling methods, including photovoice.

At that first and subsequent workshops over the next three years, the concern topping the girls’ list was early and forced marriage. The practice persisted in their community, they stated bluntly, “due to parents wanting cows.”

As the Social Ills Fighters put it in an action brief: “If girls are forced to get married, they don’t get to finish school and become who they want to be.”

For them, it was no abstract threat. During the project, three members of the group, age 16 and 17, married, and dropped out of school. A fourth girl, 16, was rescued after Social Ills Fighters alerted her mother to a forced marriage attempt. That girl remained in the project and is now studying at a university in Johannesburg.

Projector in class showing one of the girls’ cellphilms that was screened and discussed in workshops.
The girls screened and discussed their cellphilms at workshops.

At workshops held on weekends and during school holidays, the researchers introduced the girls to participatory visual methods that included digital storytelling, cellphilm-making and photovoice. The methods are engaging, easily mastered, and conducive to exploring difficult topics.

Using entry-level tablets, the girls experimented with photovoice, making themselves “heard” by creating posters with captioned photos. They then worked on a digital story told in a series of images, with voiceover and background humming.

They particularly enjoyed making cellphilms – short videos produced with a mobile phone or tablet – and learned how to use camera angles to protect participants’ identities.

A new protocol: owned and championed by the community

In February 2019, the researchers and Thembalethu held the first of several meetings with the traditional authority to share their findings. Their allies in the community came prepared.

The principal of the girls’ school brought a file containing the names of all the students who had dropped out due to early marriage. Eight weeks into the academic year, eight girls – some as young as 12 – had already suffered this fate.

The compelling evidence dispelled any doubts the traditional leaders may have had about the extent of the problem. They asked the researchers and their community partners to help draft a protocol on early and forced marriage to bring the customary practice in the region firmly in line with statutory law.

As the protocol was being developed, several mothers of Social Ills Fighters stood up at community dialogues to denounce early marriage. Some were victims of it themselves, inspired by their daughters to speak out.

In February 2020, just weeks before the national lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the traditional leaders approved the draft protocol. Plans to raise awareness and pilot it in the community are ready to resume whenever possible.

“We anticipate the great value of this process is that the protocol can be very much owned and championed by the community that created it,” Wiebesiek says. “And that will make it something that actually works.”

The Commission for Gender Equality, an independent institution which draws its mandate from Chapter 9 of the South African Constitution, supports this community-based approach to ending early marriage as it is in line with their own interventions in various communities in the country. At the provincial level, the KwaZulu-Natal Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) and the Standing Committee on Quality of Life and Status of Women, Children, Youth, Senior Citizens and Disabled People see the approach as a possible model for the whole province.

The Social Ills Fighters march to raise awareness in the community. Slogans on their placards included “No More Vows for Cows”, and “Rape Culture is Not our Culture”
Image from one of the girl’s digital stories shows a re-enactment of a girl being abducted for marriage.

In confronting an entrenched practice, the Social Ills Fighters led the way but were never left unsupported. They were at the heart of an intergenerational collaboration that rallied many parts of the community, with each playing a vital role.

“The protocol wouldn’t have come to be, and wouldn’t have received the community support that it did, without the girls,” Wiebesiek says.

“And it wouldn’t have worked without our community partner and other allies – including the school principal and nurse, and the ward councillor, who is part of the traditional leadership and has been hugely supportive of our work. It took everybody working together, building on each other’s strengths.”

The researchers credit the traditional authority with being an important part of the solution. “They provided a structure for us to work with in moving the process forward,” Moletsane says.

Finding their voices and their agency

She believes the project gave the girls in Loskop a glimpse of possibilities, in the outside world and within themselves.

“At our first meeting, I had to coax them to even say their names out loud,” she says. “They were so shy, because they had never been invited to speak openly to an adult before.”

Working together on these digital creations not only allowed the girls to have fun and relax into discussions of sensitive issues. It also reduced their tendency to defer to adults, making for a more egalitarian process.

Their initial set of cellphilms typically blamed the girl for her situation, even when she had been raped. After screening and discussing the videos, they created another set that “spoke back” to the first ones.

“We would invite them to be critical of the narrative and imagine a different ending that doesn’t punish or blame the girl,” Moletsane says. “But it was hard, because those are the narratives they’ve grown up with. And because we were older, they thought that’s what we wanted to hear: that you are a bad girl, therefore you will get pregnant and die.

“But in the end, at a big workshop with two of the other project groups from South Africa, the shyest of them volunteered to recite in front of everyone a poem she had written. It was about the struggles of being a girl – the violence and the silencing – but it also said that girls do have the agency to speak.

“Without a project like this, these girls would not have had a space where they could find that out about themselves.”

A page of an action brief created by the Social Ills Fighters for the community with the title in IsiZulu, “Girls are more important than cows.”
This page of an action brief created by the Social Ills Fighters is titled, in IsiZulu, “Girls are more important than cows.”
Top image: Lisa Wiebesiek