The #StopFunelaniNganeno Campaign: how the Human Rights Commission is protecting the girl child

by Mar 22, 2024Article, GBV and Rape

On 21 March 1960, in the township of Sharpeville, 69 people died, and 180 were wounded when police fired on a peaceful crowd that had gathered in protest against the pass laws. This iconic date in the history of South Africa is the day we commemorate as Human Rights Day. This day stands as an annual reminder of the cost of the realisation of our human rights. The day symbolises ordinary people from all walks of life coming together to raise their voices against the violation of their rights. We give thanks to those who gave their lives for us. 

64 years later, on March 21, 2024, human rights violations are still a common occurrence in our country. This requires ordinary people to constantly rise up and blow their whistles where they see violations. Nguvu Collective Change Leader Innocent Madonsela is one such ordinary South African who has been doing extraordinary work in fighting for the rights of underage girls in Nkomazi, Mpumalanga. It was through working with Innocent on his #StopFunelaniNganeno campaign that I discovered just how valuable the backing of Chapter 9 institutions can be in protecting human rights and backing the work of activists everywhere. 

Chapter 9 of the South African Constitution mandates the creation of Institutions designed to protect and support democracy. The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) promotes all the rights in the Bill of Rights by making people aware of their rights and by hearing complaints from members of the public. The Commission for Gender Equality plays a similar role to the SAHRC but focuses on gender-related rights abuses. This Human Rights Day, I want to take a moment to give you a glimpse into what is possible for communities when we work closely with these institutions to protect human rights.

In May 2023, I met Innocent Madonsela, one of the candidates Nguvu Collective was interviewing to be part of our flagship programme, We Create Change – an immersive transformational leadership programme which equips young people with skills for digital campaigning. What he would share with us in that interview would send shockwaves throughout the entire country in the months to come.

Innocent told us the heartbreaking story of how he was often woken up in the middle of the night by mothers who needed to rush their underage daughters, as young as ten years old, to the hospital 60km away because they were in labour or were having some sort of complications with their pregnancies. He could not help but notice just how young the girls were. And he was horrified to discover that in his community, men in their late 30s and 40s  were cohabitating with the children, impregnating them and then leaving them to suffer through complicated pregnancies alone. The outright sexual exploitation, statutory rape and abuse of the girls had become normalised by parents and tribal authorities under the distorted tradition of “funelani nganeno” (ukuthwala). 

Innocent was ready to “blow the whistle” on how, in his community, men involved in cases of sexual violence against minors were able to evade accountability by negotiating with tribal councils and paying nominal fines as low as R100.  This practice robbed the girls of their right to education, as they assumed parental and marital roles prematurely, leading to a profound disruption of their lives. 

By the end of June 2023, we had supported Innocent to start his online petition asking the SAHRC to launch an investigation into the funelani nganeno practice to ensure that we safeguard underage girls in Nkomazi. To #StopFunelaniNganeno we knew that we needed to prove that the practice was indeed happening. The role of the SAHRC would be to help Innocent to substantiate his claims with concrete evidence and bring together the relevant stakeholders who can put an end to the practice. 

Once the petition had crossed 10,000 signatures, we asked the signers to tweet the SAHRC and ask them to give the cause attention. In no time following this action, we had managed to secure a date for a petition handover with the Mpumalanga provincial manager of SAHRC, Mr Eric Mokonyama, and his team. In September 2023, we travelled to the provincial offices in Mbombela to officially hand over the petition. To our pleasant surprise, Mr Mokonyama and his team had already begun doing the groundwork on this issue. They had already met with the local tribal authorities and proactively invited the Commission for Gender Equality to our petition handover. 

From then on, the SAHRC and the Commission for Gender Equality have taken the bull by the horns and done all that is in their power to fast-track the process. By October 2023, the SAHRC had convened a multistakeholder engagement in Mangweni Trust. The meeting was attended by the provincial police commissioner’s office, the Department of Social Development, the Department of Basic Education, the Octopus Network, the Nkomazi Paralegal Services Hub, the Hawks, the Gender Commission and the Kwalugedlane Tribal Authority. During this information-gathering exercise, SAHRC found detailed, shocking, and worrying pregnancy statistics which were shared by both the departments of Health and Education. Children as young as 11 years of age were reported to be pregnant, and some tested HIV/AIDS  positive.

During that time, media interest in the subject was growing. Several media outlets featured the story, and every time we requested our decision maker, the SAHRC, to take some interviews, they made themselves available without fail. In December 2023, the SAHRC, in its efforts to conduct engagements with provincial governments, community members and other stakeholders to raise awareness about the malpractice of the phenomenon of ukuthwala/funelani nganeno, which masquerades as a cultural practice, focused their International Humans Rights Day commemorations on hosting community awareness engagement in Steenbok and Driekopies. 

On the 29th of February 2024, the Child Rights Unit of the SAHRC, together with the SAHRC Mpumalanga Provincial Office, participated in a community stakeholder engagement in Steenbok, Nkomazi, to raise awareness of human rights violations associated with Ukuthwala/Funelani Nganeno practice. Most recently, on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2024, the SAHRC commemorated the day by launching a national Girl Child Rights Initiative, which seeks to highlight the plight of the girl child in South Africa. In Mpumalanga, in particular, the SAHRC, under Commissioner Adv Sandra Makoasha, have committed to focusing on ending Funelani Nganeno/Ukuthwala. 

All of this has happened while the Mpumalanga Office of the SAHRC is working on the release of the investigative report that the campaign asked for.  The success of the #StopFunelaniNganeno campaign is a clear indication of all the good things that are possible when we have functioning Chapter 9 institutions. On this Human Rights Day, I urge us to stop and take stock of the progress we have made in protecting the rights of all in our country. We must also celebrate the organisations like SAHRC who have been on the frontlines of making this happen. 

Noxolo Mfocwa is a Partnerships Specialist at Nguvu Collective South Africa

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