At the age of 11 Nikeziwe was raped by her brother.
The young girl defied traditional custom and reported the rape to the police. A senior level officer gave her a response typical of those in authority in rural communities. He bluntly told her this was not a matter for the police; it is a problem to be settled by her family.
Instead of reasoning with her relatives as she was instructed Nikeziwe ran away from home and moved to the city of Durban, nearly three hours from her rural village of Ulundi. At age 15 she felt enough time had passed. She was ready to return home, but only to attend her sister’s wedding.
Whether exhausted with wedding preparations or sick for other unknown reasons, the day before the wedding Nikeziwe’s sister collapsed. The family called for an ambulance.
Before her sister even left for the hospital a decision was made by the family that Nikeziwe would step into her sister’s shoes and take her place as the bride-to-be.
By the time the ambulance arrived the family had already forced Nikeziwe to dress in her sister’s clothing and left her standing next to the man who hours before was preparing to marry her sister.
Part of the problem was that lobola, a customary gift given from the family of the husband to the bride at the time of marriage, had already been paid. The family had received 10 cows, a payment they desperately needed, but if the marriage wasn’t fulfilled, they would be forced to give them back.
All the pre-marriage rituals occurred as if Nikeziwe were to be married in the morning without any regard to the potential recovery of her sister who was lying in a hospital bed, miles away.
The next day, Nikeziwe was married.
One day after the wedding Nikeziwe’s sister returned from the hospital in good health. Despite a full recovery, her heart was broken.
The forced marriage was too much for Nikeziwe to handle. Nikeziwe ran away, back to Durban—her sister then moved in with Nikeziwe’s husband. They spent a few years together in Ulundi but the husband eventually found Nikeziwe in Durban. He convinced her to return home saying she needed her own piece of land so that when she died she would have a place to be buried. On her behalf he lobbied for her to receive a piece of land, just steps away from where he and Nikeziwe’s sister lived. There Nikeziwe built a home.
Nikeziwe is now 28 years old. She says that the man she legally married still comes to her home and reminds her that he is still her husband and that he has control over her land, her home and her body.
He told her if she tries to marry another man that he will make sure she dies.
He paid lobola, which to him means that he bought her.
Nikeziwe says she wants to divorce him but doesn’t know how or if she can under customary law.
She is now also a member of the Rural Women’s Movement (RWM), an NGO run by Sizane Ngubane that helps rural women of South Africa understand and obtain the basic human rights that they are so often denied under customary law.
Nearly two dozen female members of RWM living in the village of Ulundi met in August 2012 to share their stories. Nikeziwe never talked about the incest she endured as a child or the marriage she was forced into before joining RWM, but now she says she has found a safe haven where she can share her story, listen to others and come together to plan for a better future.
Under customary law women are often denied the right to own land, to seek justice or appear in court. While the constitution is meant to trump all provincial laws, the tribal chiefs and courts often overlook those rights—instead favoring what they have deemed the customary law of the land.
The women who defy the law and customs are a rare group. Smangele Zungu is one of them.
Smangele was living with her husband in Ulundi when one day he disappeared with another woman. Twenty years passed as she raised the children he had abandoned.
Eventually, Smangele went to her traditional leader, the chief, and asked to be allocated her own parcel of land. Under customary law, land is only granted through a male relative. In this case, the traditional leader agreed to grant Smangele land in the name of her son.
Smangele sold fruit—oranges, bananas, avocados—on the street every day to save money to build her own home on that promised piece of land.
Smangele shared her story at a meeting of the Rural Women’s Movement held in her own humble, sparse but welcoming round top home.
Younger women at the meeting were so captivated and so impressed with what Smangele did, but feared they could never do the same. Many sell fruit, stay home to take care of their children, or work on farms. They live in poverty with outhouses for toilets and shared outdoor spigots of running water, and their homes lack any semblance of modern conveniences. For them, leaving a situation of domestic violence or abuse is nearly impossible.
One young woman asked what Smangele would do if her husband ever came back and declared the house to be his own.
“He did come back,” Smangele said. “And he said ‘This is my house.’ And I said to him, ‘Over my dead body.’”
After this she said he started beating her up, something that she knew all too well from when they were living together.
She called the police—a solution to the violence that is looked down upon and avoided under customary law.
“Culturally we are not allowed to call the police into the household,” Smangele explained. “All we are meant to do is talk with a member of the household.”
She didn’t want anyone from her family or her ex-husband’s family to tell her what to do. She didn’t want to follow the typical custom, as she had not had a customary life.
“I raised my kids on my own. I built this household on my own selling vegetables on the side of the street. No one has ever come to my rescue so they cannot tell me what to do,” Smangele said.
Sizane Ngubane describes Smangele as a rock. She says it is unheard of for a woman living in a rural area to do what Smangele did.
RWM aims to empower women to achieve what Smangele has achieved and overcome obstacles like Nikeziwe did. More than anything the organization offers support and a platform to share their stories with each other. These are stories that often lie dormant inside them, untold for years, maybe decades.
Sizane has spent over 20 years driving down winding, unmarked dirt roads to these rural villages to talk with the women, teach them about their rights under the country’s constitution and listen to their problems. Even at the meeting in Ulundi while taking notes and passing out food to the women, she was visibly upset by the stories they shared.
She translated the women’s stories from their traditional Zulu language to English, detailing every detail of rape, incest, abuse or neglect over and over again.
She says she gets upset but that the long battle towards equality that she spends every day fighting is her motivation to stay strong.
“In 1998 when we started talking about these issues I would cry like a little baby,” Sizane said. “Today I still cry, but not the whole time.”