Choosing her own path: Part 1

by Mihle Mapoma
20 March 2024
20 March 2024

Freedom to say NO


Sibongile Mntungwa has lived the life of a rural woman and is now the director of an NPO that focusses on empowering girls and women. She’s also a savings group member and a firm believer in the benefits of the savings method.


When she was 22, Sibongile Mntungwa was abducted for marriage. Twenty five years later she’s an advocate for women’s rights. Raised in Centocow, KZN,  she calls herself a community development officer, based in the Harry Gwala District. She is the director of Women’s Leadership and Training Programme (WLTP), whose work is focused on girls’ and women’s empowerment. She’s also been a savings group member with SaveAct for the last ten years, an experience that has been pivotal in her life.

Mrs Mntungwa’s passion is to see girls and women enabled to reach their full potential. “In my time, young women weren’t going to school much, let alone completing Matric, due to finances or how the community viewed women as not needing education. I’ve always had desires of studying further, but that was not possible.” Because she couldn’t further her studies, she became a trainee at WLTP, after attending a few of their workshops at the Centocow Mission hospital.

What drew her to WLTP was its mission to see women and girls in leadership roles in their communities. “There was nothing that said ‘a girl can be a leader; a woman can be a leader” she says about her early years. Mrs Mntungwa came from a community where, a girl was seen as a person who belonged to someone else. A girlchild had to marry someone, and that was supposed to complete her as a woman. There was nothing outside of that; and if a girlchild wasn’t that, they were defying the standards of the community.

Defying norms

“One of the things I had to defy was that norm, especially that of being abducted to be married. That is where my story, in 1999, took a new shape,” she says. She was abducted for marriage (ukuthwala), and escaped. “I just thought ,‘there’s more to life than being a girl and a wife’. There’s nothing wrong with being a wife, I’m a wife now. But I should be a wife when I am ready for that, if I choose that, and once I’ve seen the bigger picture of life outside of being a wife.”. This realisation was what led her to committing herself to working with girls and women within her community.

In the areas where WLTP works, there are still many of these abductions, and some happen at primary school level. Since 2010, they’ve been working with traditional leaders in places like Msingaphantsi, KwaMakhuze and  KwaMadzikane to stop this practice. However, it has been normalised in such a way that it is difficult to stop. Nowadays, it is often a parental decision. Some parents believe a young woman can be educated, and have all the “things” but if they don’t have a home with a husband it is not enough.

WLTP’s work is in prevention, and making mothers, fathers and traditional leaders aware that girls can be something other than a wife. They are reminded that there’s nothing wrong with marriage, but it has to be an agreement, and not with an underaged child. It has to be a decision that the young woman will take into her hands. “(It’s about being able) to say to the parents, and to the young women: girls and women have potential. They can choose what to do with their lives and can improve the livelihood of their families, once they get education and skills,” she says.

According to Mrs Mntungwa the abduction-to-marriage process is normalised into the culture. This means that it hasn’t been deemed to be ‘wrong’ until recent years. The government has worked hard to put in place laws that state that girls 16 and under can’t be married, and having sex with them is statutory rape. However, the loophole is that if the parents agree to the child being married, then the wedding can proceed. “This happens here in KZN, but also in the Eastern Cape, so we work there as well. Granted, compared to other African countries like Cameroon or Mali, the level of abductions is not as high in SA. However, what is clear is that it is a violation of the girls involved, and abuses their vulnerability. It is important to go to the areas that practise this, and free them from it,” says Mrs Mntungwa.

In the past, there were very few young women who escaped abduction. “I can tell you from my own story, that to escape something like that is very expensive, it costs a lot. I lost many relationships at that time, even to this day, and that was almost 25 years ago,” she says ruefully. “I lost relationships because I defied that (norm). You have to have a community that supports (the right to say no), and sadly, sometimes that means you have to lose the community you grew up with, people you looked up to, people that you thought should protect you,” she says tearfully.

What really helped this work take off for WLTP, was a girl who called them several years ago to say “Please come fetch me, I’ve been abducted.” There was another girl whose husband died, and she found the courage to speak about what she had to deal with in her marriage, how she contracted HIV/AIDS from her husband, and how it was difficult for her to have children due to the horrors she had encountered, and due to the traditional leaders in her community. The girl challenged the traditional council and asked “what is right about that?.”

Mrs Mntungwa credits this girl with helping their cause.  By coming forward she made people aware of how abductees feel.  “She really helped us with conscientization, but also to stop the denial, because there was so much denial! They said it was culture, and we said ‘if culture is not life-giving, if it’s life-threatening, is that still culture? ’ We had all these young women who stood with us, and helped us push.”

WLTP works hard with girls and their parents. “Once the parents get it, they give us so much support and energy, because some of them were abducted themselves, and they’ve seen what this life is. Some were not abducted, but they can see how marriage without education has been to them. For some of them, it is easier to come onboard and work with WLTP. “

Land and sovereignty

What Mrs Mntungwa finds interesting about girls today is that they’re now creating platforms for healthy relationships between genders and between generations that exist in communities. Girls are working on agroecology farming with their mothers and grandmothers, to restore the land and their gardens, and to bring about household food security. “That on its own is life changing, because it means that a girl can own her own land. That is powerful. I know it from personal experience, like when my grandmother gave me a small piece of land for a garden and said ‘this is yours’. I planted all sorts of things. I planted anything that was available, and it was a mess, but it showed me that I am being recognised at home in one way or another,” she says proudly. “I can go anywhere in the world, but no matter where I go, I know I have a piece of land. Each time I go back there, I am reminded that I was given permission to own something. That has gotten me through all this time. Giving land to girls and women doesn’t only translate to the land, but to the mind, to say ‘I have freedom to own something.’”

Mrs Mntungwa maintains that the girls and women she works with always say “if this land was really mine, I would do A, B and C with it.” She believes land ownership is important, not only in terms of food production, but in terms of what the girls and women bring into innovation. “I have dreams related to land, but where am I going to do that? The land thing is a big issue, in terms of transferring indigenous knowledge skills to younger people, but also younger people coming with scientific knowledge. They learn so much in workshops about climate science. Where is the space for innovation to solve climate issues in their communities? There isn’t enough space, especially if they don’t own the land,” she says.

She gives the example of a dream the girls who work with WLTP have for disposable nappies, that are polluting the environment and drinking water. If they were to do something about that, they would need space and support. However, as they don’t own land, that’s a challenge.

In her area, and most rural areas around her, the land belongs to the man of the household. If there isn’t a father, the land goes to the son; if there isn’t a son, the land goes to the extended family where there is a man. That land also belongs to the village chief, who has the ultimate say about what happens to it. “The main challenge is fields, and grazing lands – because those are also owned by men, so women have no real say in what happens on that land. A woman can’t make a long-term investment in land, because at any time, men could come and say ‘we need that land’ for something ‘better’, threatening your investment. Sometimes you’ll lose it entirely. Even if you can get ownership, and you have a title deed, as a rural woman with no good income or steady income, it’s difficult to go to a bank and ask for a loan. It’s probably not going to happen, and that’s the other issue.

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