For Basotho living in the rural parts of the country, early child marriage doesn’t exists — it’s a myth — when a teenager is impregnated, families rush to organise a traditional wedding ceremony and it’s a done deal.
This common, yet cruel practice perpetrated on the girl child continues in rural parts of Lesotho with the unsuspecting victims — socialised to believe it is their only way out of poverty and hunger — married-off in exchange for either a herd of cattle or cash in bride-wealth.
It remains a generally common practice that girls below the age of 18 are wedded-off with the consent of parents amid these practices contravening laws protecting children rights like Children’s Protection and Welfare Act of 2011 and Sexual Offences Act.
In some instances, it has proved to be hard for children to agree to testify and have law enforcement agents prosecute parents for ‘selling’ their girl child under the veil of traditional marriage which has no defined age limit.
Mostly the child after being rescued gets to make peace and forgives her parents as these arrangements are today commonly seen as a way to escape poverty and hunger.
For thirteen-year-old Lerato*, rescued in Durban by her sister after falling prey to a vicious circle of child marriage, her only crime was walking in the dark alone from her school’s winter classes.
She said she was married off to a young man who had literally abducted her — not eloped — on her way from school.
Shocking is that Lerato, even though she detests her kidnapper come, husband, she expresses hatred and feels embittered towards her parents whom she accuses of having abandoned her in her time of need by endorsing the marriage.
She narrates that one day, on her way home from her winter classes she was grabbed by an unknown young man on the dusty streets of Qacha’s Nek. The young man harshly instructed her to follow him, which she dutifully did, fearing for her life.
In fear, Lerato said she could not resist as she was held tightly by the hand and she had to follow her soon to be ‘husband’.
She knew nothing about the place she was being taken to or what was going to happen to her when they got to the destination she was being dragged to by her kidnapper.
Upon arrival at the home of the abductor, Lerato said she was told by an elderly woman whom she came to learn was the young man’s grandmother she had been married.
She said a messenger was sent to her home to inform her parents, whom in return endorsed and blessed the marriage agreeing to terms for payment of bridewealth.
Following the marriage, Lerato’s in-laws “invited” their thirteen-year-old-bride to their home in Durban, South Africa for a meet-and-greet at a place in Durban, South Africa she only recalls to be called 21.
“Upon arrival, my father in law said he was happy that he is now a grown old man with a daughter in law,” said Lerato.
“He asked how old I was and I responded that I’m thirteen, then he mentioned that I’m as old as his daughter who is still school going. I hated that I had been forced into this marriage thing at that age.
But, Lerato told the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism how she narrowly escaped and ended being helped by the South African Police Service and the Lesotho Durban Consulate to return back to a place of safety after being helped escape by her sister.
The Centre has since established while Lerato was just thirteen when she got married off, her abductor was only fifteen years old at the time of the incident.
The Centre has learned, Lerato’s case also bothered on human trafficking as she was, for no clear reasons, made to leave her ‘husband’ and go see her in-laws in Durban, South Africa.
The Child and Gender Protection Unit head, Senior Inspector Beleme Moerane told the Centre Lerato was brought back to Lesotho with the help of the South African Police Service working with Lesotho’s Durban Consular Lerato Tšosane.
Moerane said Tšosane helped transport Lerato from Durban to Maseru safely after being informed about her case.
Upon arrival in Maseru, Lerato was assisted by the police and the Office of the Commissioner of Refugees that also has the mandate to coordinate the country’s response on cases of trafficking in persons.
The police further said Lerato was suspected to have not only been taken to Durban to see her in-laws but was suspected to be a human trafficking victim.
With the help of the Commissioner of Refugees, Lerato was secured a shelter at a shelter for victims of human trafficking.
Moerane told the Centre that the CGPU headquarters in Maseru continues to guide the Qacha’s Nek CGPU office on the case and many others until the matter is concluded.
But, Moerane revealed that recently he was shocked to be confronted by Lerato’s parents after four (4) years of their daughter’s disappearance.
Moerane said Lerato’s parents came to the police headquarters in Maseru under the pretext of reporting Lerato’s disappearance, four years after she escaped from a marriage they helped arrange.
Moerane said Lerato’s parents claimed their daughter was sent to Durban to attend school and was not married as the victim and her sister argued.
He further said the parents, when asked about their endorsement of their thirteen-year daughter’s marriage, denied they endorsed Lerato’s marriage and said the police were making baseless accusations as their daughter has gone missing from school.
While narrating her escape as though it had just happened, Lerato, said while in Durban, she contacted her sister who was at the time working there and in turn, their conversation ended with her sister asking to know her in-laws.
“While visiting, she secretly inquired from me, why our parents had allowed me to be married. I did not also understand why they had agreed at my age,” said Lerato.
Lerato said she felt relieved that her Sister was clearly by her corner and ready to break the marriage she had been forced into.
“She did not agree to my being married, especially because it was against my will. She also promised that she would be fetching me to take me to stay with her and attend a school like other thirteen years old’s,” recalls Lerato.
Lerato’s said her sister’s disapproval of the marriage angered her in-laws who in return barred her from visiting her sister.
“They angrily said I’m can’t visit my sister. At that time, my husband, the young man who had abducted me in the night and married me was left behind in Lesotho while I was visiting his parents. I don’t know much about him; all I know is that he used to visit our village.
“With the help of a friend, my sister arranged with a friend to go fetch me.
“On that day, her friend just called my name and I came out, then we went to see my sister without my in-law’s permission.
“On my return, she had said if they did not approve of me seeing her, then I should take that as a cue to escape and go see her and never return,” said Lerato. She said indeed her in-laws were furious at her for visiting her sister.
“It was a Wednesday; they told me that by tomorrow, Thursday, they will be sending me back to Lesotho. They accused my sister of luring me so she could pimp me to South African man and make all sorts of nasty accusations about her.
“Silently on the next day, early in the morning, I took everything that belonged to me and escaped through the fence and ran to my sister’s place, and that’s how I managed to flee from that marriage,” said Lerato.
She, however, says her relentless mother-in-law did not give up on her and organised a search party that went to confront her sister in the evening.
Lerato says at about 6:00 pm, six men and her mother-in-law arrived in the company of a community councilor at my sister’s place.
The community councilor said that they are there to fetch “a bride she had forcefully taken away from a marriage”.
She furiously replied, asking which bride they were referring to.
Then the councilor said this woman’s bride and further asking that “I should come out for him to see me”.
“My sister complied, and instructed me to appear. When I did, the councilor was shocked that I was that young.
“He left in anger, saying he cannot be part of this mess and promised that he is going to report my mother-in-law to the police,” she said.
Lerato said her fuming mother-in-law did not want to hear any of it, and she stormed her way into the house and collected my shoes from the floor and “ordered me to return back to my marriage”.
“In shock, I ran out, I did not even know where to. But I ran into the dark night. My mother-in-law came running after me but she could not catch me as I was too fast for her.
“I remember climbing up a tree that I discovered was a Mango tree nearby and no one could find me. But around 9 pm I returned.
“Upon my return, my sister took me to her friend’s place to hide as her house was not safe for me,” she said.
Lerato said the next morning they went to report to police in Durban, where she was referred to social workers.
“In turn, the social workers took me to children’s home, where I stayed for about a week. Thereafter I was transported to another shelter, now it was a shelter for teenage mothers and women for some time” she said.
Lerato says while at the teenage mothers and women shelter, one day, she was told there is a Lesotho ambassador who was looking for me.
“We talked about my case with the ambassador and she decided to take me into her own house until the issue had been resolved as my sister’s place was no safe for me to stay.
“After a week, I was told that there is somewhere I would go and stay in Lesotho. I have since been staying at this home (Beautiful Dreams Society’s shelter for victims of trafficking (women and girls)) since her escape in 2014 to date,” said Lerato.
Lerato’s case remains unresolved and she remains at the shelter in Maseru and Police in Qacha’s Nek have told the Centre the case has no prospects of going any further and it may end up being closed without being sent for prosecution.
*Name has been changed to protect the victim.