By Cuma Pantshwa

  • Over 60 children gathered at KwaMhlanga Provincial Legislature on International Children’s Day to discuss and seek solutions to harmful cultural practices affecting children.
  • The dialogue, themed “Eliminating Harmful Practices Affecting Children: Progress on Policy and Practice,” showcased the support and collaborative efforts of government departments and law enforcement agencies to protect children.
  • Personal stories from the children highlighted the urgent need for action, while government representatives outlined existing laws and measures to safeguard children’s rights.

In commemorating International Children’s Day, observed on 1 June, over 60 children gathered at KwaMhlanga Provincial Legislature to speak out and collaboratively seek solutions with various government departments regarding harmful cultural practices against children.

Under the theme “Eliminating Harmful Practices Affecting Children: Progress on Policy and Practice,” the day spotlighted various harmful cultural practices. Former child ambassador of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Parliament, Loyal Ratau (18), whose duty was to host the session with the current ambassador, Thembela Nkosi (14), said she was impressed by the support given to measures protecting children. She noted that practices such as Ukuthwala or Ukuhlolwa were often done forcefully and without parental knowledge.

Loyal defined the traditional practices, explaining Ukuthwala as “the abduction of a girl to marry an older man for money” and Ukuhlolwa as “the forced virginity testing of girls.” She emphasised that these practices have no place in today’s world and applauded the government’s and law enforcement agencies’ efforts to protect children. “I’m quite happy with the support given, and what I would like to see going forward is for the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, the police, and other law enforcement agencies to work together and not in silos,” she said. She stressed the need for action beyond written policies.

A 16-year-old girl shared her ordeal, recalling how her grandmother, her caregiver, would wake her early in the morning and perform a painful ritual to flatten her breasts. “It was painful; I was only nine years old,” she remembered. According to the UN Women, breast flattening or breast ironing involves the flattening or massaging of a young girl’s developing breasts to delay puberty and deter sexual attention. The UN estimates that 3.8 million women are affected by this practice in many parts of Africa.

According to Section 28 of the Bill of Rights: “Every child has the right to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation; and protected against any act that risks the child’s well-being, education, physical or mental health, or spiritual, moral or social development.”

Given that June marks the start of initiation school for many boys in the area, hosting this discussion was timely. Former Speaker of the Children’s Parliament, Given Matshika (19), said, “I’m really glad and excited that the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development and the chiefs of the area are working together to prevent any harm to the boys and ensure they return safely and well-treated when they come back to school.”

Mr Zweli Mahlangu, Coordinator for initiation schools for the Department of Social Development, Mpumalanga, and headman of the B’ Sehla royal kraal, outlined the laws governing these issues. He explained that in Mpumalanga, they are guided by the Customary Initiation Schools Act, Act 2 of 2001, which outlines the roles of various departments, including social development, health, basic education, sport, arts and culture, and safety and security. Mr Mahlangu highlighted the positive role played by the Ingoma Forum, launched by the Department of Health to prevent deaths and ensure medical assessments and parental consent for initiates. He also noted that the Department of Safety and Security deals with illegal initiation schools and that the Department of Basic Education assists initiates with recovery plans to catch up with school programmes.

Advocate Ramathikithi of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development expressed concern about child marriages. “When a child is a minor, with or without the child’s consent, an adult person who has sexual intercourse with a child is committing a crime and will be charged with statutory rape.” He reminded the children of their right to open a case whenever their rights are violated and that their issues are heard in Children’s Courts.

The dialogue placed children at the centre, promoting their rights to participation, focusing on child abuse, neglect, and exploitation, and educating them on reporting child abuse and harmful cultural practices.


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