In the country, which will host the World Cup this summer, hundreds of girls barely past puberty are forced to marry. Sometimes their own families arrange for them to be abducted and married off to men they don't know, in a practice village leaders call a tribal tradition
Speaking from a secret refuge in the province, some girls who had escaped the forced marriages spoke out about their ordeal. "I cried to my mother for help when the man came for me, but she just told me she didn't want a spinster in her house," one 15-year-old said. For the eight months before she managed to flee, another teenager said she had been repeatedly raped and beaten by her "husband". "It was a very painful experience for me, in the first few days I didn't even know his name," she told Sky News.
In cut-off communities like these, where boys are valued far more than girls, young wives are a status symbol for older men. Fathers can pick up dowries and no longer have to pay to feed and house their daughters. Mothers are powerless to step in and many South African girls lurch straight from childhood to marriage once their father gives the word. Sometimes that word comes years before they even reach puberty. The consequences of these forced marriages are staggering. Teen years and schooling are cut short, immature girls are forced to cope with early pregnancies and dangerous births and are often forced to serve others throughout the rest of their lives. There is also the risk of HIV, at an age when girls do not grasp the risks of Aids. "It is totally unacceptable," said Zoleka Capa, the first female Mayor in the area, who runs a refuge for girls who have escaped forced marriages. "Forced marriage has no place in a democratic state. It is a violation of rights."
Ms Capa is using her status as mayor to campaign to alter the tradition. But her work has split the local community, in which male village leaders still call the shots. Girls’s mothers tell community elders when their daughters begin their menstrual cycle and from that point they are regarded as adults.
By Hayley Jarvis for SOS Children