Percy insists she is 16 though she may pass off as 17. She lowers her rucksack towel to free her 8 months old daughter, and blocks dust from pummeling her dish of vegetables. Immigrant, underage brides are trooping from Zimbabwe and Mozambique to live and give births as “wives” of cash rich but equally underage “husbands” who make a fortune slipping into disused gold mines in South Africa.
“I abandoned school in Zimbabwe in 2015 when my parents died and family cows were taken as debt cancellation,” says Percy. “I was 15 years then. I followed to South Africa my boyfriend who was a 16 year old gold miner in Springs town.”
Springs, a town lying 60 km west of Johannesburg, South Africa´s commercial capital, is a haven for daring gold ore diggers who rumble into its devious mine holes to scrap off its precious ore. Link Such boys like Percy´s underage husbands are called “ma Gweja” a local lingo meaning “boys who steal gold.”
These “Gweja” husbands can spend four months under mine holes, panning for ore that brings them enormous income. “We their wives wait upon our husbands while selling vegetables.”
Percy says she slipped into South Africa from Zimbabwe without a passport thanks the deep pockets of her “husband.”
“He was generous, he made available R3000 ($200) to keep off immigration police until I arrived here,” she says. The Beitbridge border buffer between Zimbabwe and South Africa is vast and largely porous though Alupfunwi Makhado of South Africa Immigration department says all officers who take bribes to allow the entry of illegal immigrants will be punished if discovered.
Percy then placates her baby who cries to be left free from her back. She points to Esta, 16, her best friend. Esta, from Mozambique, is an underage bride too who followed her 17 year old husband to Springs gold mines.
“I never prospered in school beyond Mozambique´s Grade 2,” she says. “If I failed to follow him to South Africa, South Africa girls would have snatched him from me. I have a four months old son born here but my late parents would never have approved our co-habitation or accepted the dowry price.”
School is fruitless,
According to Japhet Moyo, secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, a wretched Zimbabwe economy that has tripled social poverty. “This pushing is underage girls to follow young gold miner boys to South Africa and become child brides,” he says.
Tino Hondo, the gender officer at Plan International charity in Zimbabwe, reveals that in 2016 over 3000 school girl dropped out of education to marry.
Percy agrees. “For me continuing with school was impossible when my boyfriend wired $200 from South Africa. He tempted me. He said – flee home and come to be my wife. We have a baby but no marriage contract. Here in Springs I know six other girls under 17 years whose situations resemble mine.”
Giles Virgilli, head of Child Protection programme at Save the Children charity Southern Africa bemoans the increase in number of young people and children travelling unaccompanied between Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. “The inter-regional troubles of hunger, parents´ loss and illicit gold mining is a big lure that discourages underage girls from finishing school. They see emigration to live with sexual partners as a viable livelihood.”
On her part Esta, says her husband was arranged for her by her guardian family when she was 11 years old. “When he was 12 years old he was already wearing glitter watches helping his fathers in the gold pits of South Africa. Our families stressed school was fruitless and I must become his wife on turning 14 or else gifts of goats would stop.”
Child brides suffer beatings,
Tino Hondo, the gender rights officer says family arrangements that tie underage girls into early controlled marriages, are a temporary benefit and sometimes long-term tragedy. “With no legal protection of family support in faraway South Africa child brides can endure beatings or expulsion. They live at the whims of their so-called husbands.”
Charles Kawaza, 56, a well know gold ore trader in Springs, South Africa and tribal supervisor who settles disputes for multitudes young miners from Zimbabwe and Mozambique agrees. “In 2016 alone we dispatched back home to Zimbabwe two bodies of 18 year old brides who were beaten to death by their teenage husbands. The young boys when flush with gold ore instant riches, they become fiery with beer and violence. If they assault their brides, they slip down into mines for weeks to evade police.”
Percy is not thinking her “husband” who will come out of a mine after seven weeks working underground will assault her. “My greatest fear is he´ll never pay dowry price but impregnate me again. I can’t return home to Zimbabwe unless he wires money for a cow to prove he has married me in exile.”
(Photo credit: Photo shows Percy the “wife” selling vegetables in South Africa. The women have withheld their surnames to guard their identity.)
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