The Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) is pleased with the outcome of the meeting held on Friday, 1 February 2013 with the Nazareth Baptist Church (NBC) of eBuhleni representative. Mr Lizwi Ncwane, a legal adviser and general member of the Executive Committee of the NBC Ebuhleni is duly authorised representative that attended the meeting.
This meeting came as a result of concerns the CGE has with the revelations that there are practices of underage marriages of children by people who allege to be members of the NBC. Communities in areas like Maphumulo and Ndwedwe have reported that there are girls as young as 13 whose families have received ilobolo, engaged and, or married to members. Most of these girls are said to have been chosen through a process called 'ukuhlala ebhentshini' (to sit on the bench). This is said to be a process where girls are availed to be chosen for marriage.
The CGE is concerned, not only by the illegality of these underage marriages, or initiation thereof but also by the fact that the future of these girls is at risk. Young as they are, they have to stop schooling. In most instances, they start engaging in sexual intercourse at this tender age with men who are mostly much older. These practices are prohibited by both the Sexual Offences Act and the Children's Act.
This meeting aimed to verify whether the practice is indeed policy of the Church and whether the Church takes any action to out root it. Mr Ncwane further said that marrying off underage girls is against NBC policy and those families that place underage children through the process of the bench and subsequent marriages do it off their own accord. He says that in the Church policy is in accordance with customary law and that every leader of the church knows that according to this law, children under the age of 18 are minors and can neither be engaged nor married.
As a legal person himself, Mr Ncwane says that people who marry underage children should face the course of the law. The church itself takes disciplinary action against members who perpetuate this practice. Mr Mfanozelwe Shozi, the Chairperson of the CGE, confirmed that "indeed the Commission will investigate and ensure that perpetrators are prosecuted."
The CGE has welcomed the response and commitment of the NBC to protect the rights and the future of children. The CGE is pleased to hear that the Church has existing education, awareness and administrative systems. Both the CGE and NBC have agreed to joint education awareness programmes with the leadership and members of the Church. Both parties acknowledge that there is still a long way to go to align customary law and religious practices with the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.