Her grandmother said to stay away from boys. When a young stranger from another village approached her as she walked home from school and declared his love, Nonkululeko fled. Whenever she saw him after that, she hid.

"I used to hate what he was saying because all I was interested in was going to school. I used to hate him," Nonkululeko said.

Now she's married to that stranger, and several times a month, he forces her to have sex.

"He uses his strength and muscles and beats me.

"I have often thought of how to get out of it. I can't think of any option.... What I wish could happen is that they could give him back the cows and I could leave his house."

But male relatives rarely agree to such things, trapping many KwaZulu-Natal women in unhappy marriages.

"When I'm thinking deeply about my situation, sometimes that dream of being a pilot comes back," Nonkululeko said. "It makes me feel like a failure in life."

Mandla Mandela, a traditional chief, ruling lawmaker and grandson of Nelson Mandela, the country's first post-apartheid president, belittled activist Ngubane in a 2010 parliamentary hearing when she drew attention to bride abductions, saying that her understanding of culture had been "adulterated" by Western notions.

"When you are going to discuss culture, do not even try to bring in white notions, as such an approach will turn things upside down," he said.

But Mandela also said the girl eventually must agree to the marriage before it is consummated, speaking of victims as "someone's daughter" and equating raping a girl to stealing her father's cows. He said cultural laws forbid a man who abducts a bride to have sex with her.

"By entering her, you have then violated her father's cattle. Back home in Thembuland, we beat you to your death if you touch a girl in this way," he told the hearing. The abducted girl he said, has a right to reject the marriage and return home.

But victims say it doesn't work that way.


Jabulile, whose name means "happiness," grew up in an unhappy family in rural KwaZulu-Natal. When her father died, her mother was "inherited" by the dead man's brother and spent days weeping. A month later, at 15, Jabulile was abducted by four men, one of whom wanted her as a wife. She was taken to a forest, beaten, raped, made to drink a "love potion" and forced into marriage with the man, who was eight years older.

"I was crying, I was shocked, I was shaking like a leaf," the now 28-year-old said.

Jabulile's brothers reported her abduction to the police.

"The police said they didn't want to involve themselves because by screaming and saying, 'No, no, no," girls mean, 'Yes, yes, yes,'" Jabulile said. Her uncles swiftly accepted a payment of eight cows.

In 2010, Ngubane, the activist, conducted a workshop in an isolated area of KwaZulu-Natal, hoping women would share their experience of being forced to leave school because of bride abduction. But the issue is so sensitive that they denied it ever happened.

"For a whole month, it did not come out. The whole group said they did not know anyone who was dropping out of school. Then women opened up. They said, 'It happened to me.'"

Like Nonkululeko, Jabulile has been forced to have sex countless times by her husband over the years.