When most young girls picture their wedding day, they see themselves in a glorious white gown with a train to rival even the most royal of brides, walking down the aisle to meet the love of their lives. Or decked out in colourful traditional dresses , covered in beads and welcomed with ululation to their in-laws’ home.

But Amanda Ndyebo* was dragged kicking and screaming to her “wedding”. The Eastern Cape woman was only 15 years old when she was abducted and married off to a man almost twice her age. It was all part of the outdated practice of ukuthwala, which sees young girls married off to older men with the approval of their families. After eight years of marriage Amanda, now 24, managed to run away from her husband and his family. Now their marriage and subsequent separation is in the spotlight after her husband demanded his lobola money back from her family.

It’s a trauma she’s still working on getting over, the former child bride tells DRUM.

“I do not see myself ever getting married again. This experience has scarred me for life. Marriage is not nice,” she says.

“In the beginning things seem to be okay but the longer you stay, you see it for what it is – oppression.”

The day her life changed started off normally. She woke up, did her chores and was walking with her brother to buy tobacco for their father in another village in Ngcobo in the Eastern Cape when three men approached them and started pulling and dragging her. Scared and confused, the young girl begged the men to allow her to go home but they would not. Against her will, she finally arrived at the house that was to become her home for the next few years.

 “They wanted to dress me in traditional makoti wear, but I refused and said I wanted to go home. “The more I resisted, the more adamant they became until somebody told me they had asked my parents for my hand in marriage and they had agreed. I gave in. I was powerless,” Amanda recalls. She had no choice but to accept her new life: she was now the wife of a man she’d never met before.

Amanda was a virgin when she was married off to her 28-year-old husband and had to consummate her marriage, something she wasn’t ready for. After getting married her husband left to work in another province and would return after three months, leaving his young bride with his parents and sister. Her in-laws told Amanda, who was in Grade 9 when she was snatched from the street, that she could stay in school.

“I wanted to study and then become a police officer. Even though they said I could go to school they seemed to hate the idea. I’d go to school and when I returned there would be a mountain of chores waiting for me. I ended up dropping out before finishing Grade 9,” she says sadly.

 “Even when I was pregnant, my mother-in-law wouldn’t let me rest, saying I was not the first woman to be pregnant. She said working hard would do no harm to me or the baby. When I miscarried, she said it was because I’d previously been on contraceptives.”

Amanda stayed in her loveless marriage for eight years because her father would not allow her back home.

“In the early stages I started liking the husband, but I do not think I actually loved him. I never imagined my future or getting old with him. “In fact, I’d be with him and all I could think about was being home with my family. “When there were troubles in the marriage and I went home, my father would not allow me to stay. He would shout at me and say ‘umfazi uyanyamezela emzini’ (a wife must endure all things in her marriage).”

Every year it became more and more difficult. “The husband changed when I had a child. He did not treat me like someone he loved, who he intended to take care of. “He didn’t even want to give me money for the children, he said I should use the child grant and when I said that was not enough, he said I should make do with it because he wasn’t prepared to give me more. 

“When I was falling short financially, I had to ask my brothers to assist me,” she continues. “When there were traditional ceremonies at the house, I had to borrow clothes from my mother because he wouldn’t give me money to buy the clothes I needed, even though it was his family’s ceremonies.”

She gathered the courage to leave after her father died in October last year. Her mother had been giving her money throughout her marriage, she says, but when her father died, her mom couldn’t afford to send money anymore. Fearing her children would go to bed hungry without her family’s support, Amanda decided to find a way to move back home. She told her in-laws she was taking the kids to visit her family in January and when she would come back, but she never returned.

Amanda, whose children are aged five and three, says the experience has ruined her idea of marriage. “I was robbed of my youth and for what? I wasn’t happy. I look at girls who want to get married and I wish I could warn them marriage is not as nice as it seems, but it’s not my place, they must experience it for themselves.”

If she had her way, she wouldn’t allow her daughter to wed because she wants to protect her from the hellish experience she had. Now that the marriage is over, the husband has demanded his lobola back, which is still being discussed by their families.

Dr Nokuzola Mndende of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities says they condemn the practice and his request for his lobola.

“We see this as an abuse of women as well as culture. She was a child when they abducted her, making it statutory rape because she was underage. “There are many things wrong with this situation, including the fact that she wasn’t treated well. It is anti-African culture to mistreat umakoti, because you should treat her as your own child, that is why she is given a name, as a way of welcoming her,” she says.

“It is also very wrong for him to demand his lobola back because she had children in the marriage. He has no right.”

*Not her real name