July 18, 2022

#Thought Space: A Mandela Day Feature on Nomkhitha Gysman Leading Action against Ukuthwala

I first met Nomkhitha Gysman during a gender-focused Southern African Development Community (SADC) meeting in 2017. Nomkhitha served as the SADC expert and focal point for gender in our region and during the pandemic (around 2020) had invited me to an incubation meeting for the Foundation she envisioned to tackle ukuthwala (forced child marriages), a neglected issue in South Africa.

A few months post the incubation meeting, Nomkhitha has already made this vision a reality setting up the Eugenia Nothemba Gxowa Foundation. For #MandelaDay2022 I couldn’t think of anyone better to catch up with and tell you all about!

  1. Tell me a bit about you, Nomkhitha?

I am the third of six children born to two teachers. The Apartheid system in South Africa meant that my mother specifically was only able to teach Bantu Education (inferior education for ‘black children’) in farm schools on temporary contracts, this meant that we always shifted from school to school, where ever my mother was able to work. As a child, I probably attended close to ten different primary schools.

A turning point in my life was when my parents divorced in 1969, the court had meant to split us children up but had not given our pleading as children, we were single-handedly brought up by my mother, a strong woman, Eugenia Nothemba Gxowa.

  1. You have played a significant political role in the SADC region, how about shedding light on the professional journey?

Like some of my elder siblings, I too became a teacher, earning a meagre salary for close to sixteen years under the Apartheid government. At one stage of my career, I was even penalised for falling pregnant as an ‘unmarried woman’, more about that another time.

I then went on to join the civil society space where I worked for several organizations as well as spending time for OXFAM where I led gender-based violence (GBV) programming. Through working with the South Africa Multi-Party Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, I was eventually posted to SADC where I was responsible for the Regional Women’s Parliamentary Caucus (RWPC) and the national women’s parliamentary caucuses from Member States.

  1. Are there any career highlights you would like to share?

I look back on my career and specifically my time at SADC as being an experience I would never trade, somehow, with limited resources, we were able to align our Member States to global resolutions. Developing Clause 12 and 13 of the SADC Protocol and Gender and Development, which was championed by the RWPC. Contributing from a regional level to the Commission Status of Women (CSW) each year was also so exciting.

  1. You recently established the Eugenia Nothemba Gxowa Foundation (ENGF) which focuses on ukuthwala (forced/ early marriages) in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, ukuthwala is a neglected issue, what inspired this focus?

The Eugenia Nothemba Gxowa Foundation (ENGF) is actually in the name and memory of my mother and so many like her who suffered discrimination under apartheid. As the ENGF we work towards ensuring that girls and young women do not suffer discrimination like our mothers and that young women and girls should enjoy rights enshrined in the South African Constitution.

There is almost no programming and no data on ukuthwala in the country, this is at the centre of our work. As ENGF our aim is to begin to generate enough evidence and reliable data on prevalence of the practice, to lobby elected public representative for amendment and strengthening of relevant legislation in the country.

Thanks for your time Nomkhitha, fighting a issue which, almost no one is taking up in the country and in your mothers name, I am truly inspired. When I last called you, you were renovating your house in Grahamstown, it would be lovely to visit you at some point, continue chatting over a cup of tea and finding ways to support ENGF.

You’re welcome to learn more about the ENGF visit

Dr Shakira Choonara is an award-winning public health practitioner, and pens #ThoughtSpace with a touch of inspiration, critical thinking, and creativity. This month the piece was penned with a heavy heart amidst the growing levels of violence and femicide in South Africa.

Tweet: @ChoonaraShakira

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