WATERVILLE — Imagine living in a community where your daughters are raped and beaten on their way to school, abducted and forced to marry men they do not choose and then scorned by the community as impure.
In Zandile Nhlengetwa’s world, such atrocities are the norm.
A resident of South Africa, Nhlengetwa is principal of Ulusda Primary School in Kwa-zulu Natal. In the town, fraught with poverty, substance abuse, criminal violence, sexual abuse as well as HIV and AIDS, she tries to impress on families the importance of allowing their daughters to attend school and encouraging their sons to study rather than join gangs or military groups.
Her work is challenging and dangerous, particularly in a place where cultural tradition allows activities such as virginity testing of young girls. When the community learns the girls are not virgins, they are shunned by their families and others.
“This has led to the increase of these young girls committing suicide,” Nhlengetwa said.
She described the atrocities Tuesday to about 50 people who turned out for a Mid-Maine Global Forum at The Center downtown.
She is this year’s Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights Fellow at Colby College, where she is spending a semester teaching, researching and helping to develop a lecture series and human rights symposium.
In her South African community, forced marriage is typical, she said.
“We have a lot of polygamy, which is encouraged by our constitution,” she said.
She explained that polygamy is encouraged because most men work in large cities and have left wives and children neglected in rural areas.
“So, women left in rural areas are at least taken care of,” she said. “We have also the practice of, when a husband dies, a woman is forced to marry an extended relative within the family and that is to guard the inheritance of the family.”
Girls are typically groomed for marriage only. Many boys, considered the future family providers, grow into young warriors who abduct girls, she said.
Nhlengetwa’s school, supported by the provincial department of education, local businesses and independent donors, tries to address high levels of illiteracy, substance abuse and many forms of violence.
In March, a security guard at the school was shot because he was trying to prevent a group of violent men from coming into Nhlengetwa’s office.
Her school faced many challenges, including low enrollment, because parents were afraid to send their daughters there, thinking they may be raped. Some parents were ill with AIDS and grandparents had to care for them and qualified teachers were scarce and resources limited.
Families who strongly supported the school were also attacked and relationships within families were affected, she said. Husbands became angry because they were afraid they would not get a good price for their daughters, she said.
“It brought a lot of tension.”
With no support from police and her life in danger, Nhlengetwa left the area, but returned later to change the way she approached human rights issues to try to get the people to support the school and allow girls to attend.
She worked with a local human rights organization to look at the traditions to try to modify inside — rather than outside — the cultural context of the community, she said.
“I needed to change the environment that influences this continued violence,” she said.
During workshops discussing masculinity and what it meant to be a man, men were encouraged to talk about the violence they experienced as boys and what it was like to grow up without fathers, who were killed in tribal wars.
The school also got a minibus to take students to and from school and two women now accompany them, she said.
Nhlengetwa, whose husband was killed during a tribal conflict, said the new approach has not yet created big change.
“We’ve just touched the tip of it,” she said.
The audience Tuesday sat in silence as Nhlengetwa told her stories.
Afterward, Philip Gonyar, a retired 33-year history teacher and longtime member of the Global Forum, said it is difficult to appreciate the difficulties Nhlengetwa faces.
“We take it for granted that everyone is going to be treated properly and that we don’t have to walk down the street and worry about whether we will be beaten or kidnapped,” Gonyar said. “And to go into the middle of that and try to change customs must be very, very difficult.”
Amy Calder — 861-9247