More than 90,000 South African girls between the ages of 12 and 17 were either married, divorced, separated, widowed or living with a partner as husband and wife in 2016. The latter formed the majority of the group.
This is according to the Community Survey results recently released by Statistics SA.
"Although the South African stats are lower compared to the rest of Africa, the fact that child brides are a reality in South Africa, a country with one of the world's best constitutions, is frightening," said Professor Deirdre Byrne, chairperson of the Unisa-Africa Girl Development Programme.
The practice of ukuthwala involves kidnapping a girl or a young woman with the intention of compelling her or her family to endorse marriage. The justice department says the practice today involves kidnapping and often rape, with forced marriage of girls as young as 12 "by grown men old enough to be their grandfathers" happening particularly in more remote rural communities.
The practice was found to be more prevalent in KwaZulu-Natal, which ranked the highest with at least 25,000 girls subjected to the practice in 2016, while Gauteng came a close second at 15,929 girls.
Forced marriage of girls as young as 12 by 'grown men old enough to be their grandfathers' is happening particularly in more remote rural communities.
Following a report on ukuthwala, released by the Commission for Gender Equality, participants in a subsequent dialogue indicated that the holiday period creates a particularly vulnerable period for young girls.
A representative from Ixopo, in the Natal Midlands, told the gathering that upon the return of migrant workers from Johannesburg, many young girls from her area were more likely to be abducted.
This may be because many migrant workers returning home in December have just received their bonuses -- or 13th cheques -- or cashed in their year-long savings, which may go a long way in paying the 'bridal price' many abductors pay in the form of cash or cattle to the parents of an abducted girl.
Speaking to HuffPost SA, KZN police spokesperson Thulani Zwane said although the practice was not as prevalent as before, the holiday season has in the past generally seen more cases reported.
The holiday period creates a particularly vulnerable period for young girls.
Zwane encouraged community members to report incidents of ukuthwala to authorities. Such cases are dealt with by the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences unit of the South African Police Service.
"Some people still do not know that it is illegal," he pointed out, adding that very little can be done if the cases are not reported.
"The only vehicle to decreasing the number of child brides is through education," said Byrne.
She said the toxic combination of patriarchy and economic inequalities may lead to poor families "selling" their underage children to men, and stressed that keeping girls in school was crucial if the cycle of poverty, abuse and child marriages was to end.
As a society we owe it to each African girl-child to protect them from marriage, violence and sexual abuse.
"Disadvantages in education limit opportunities for girls and women. Their empowerment is essential to economic advancement and social development and as their contribution would have a significant impact on national growth rates," she said.
She strongly believes gender equality is a fundamental human right, not a privilege.
"As a society we owe it to each African girl-child to protect them from marriage, violence and sexual abuse, empower them with knowledge and give them access to a life of dignity, opportunity and prosperity."