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The Downside of Initiations on Innocent Young Girls: Rights Violated, Future in Limbo

The Downside of Initiations on Innocent Young Girls: Rights Violated, Future in Limbo

In August last year, a six-year-old girl was forced into a girl’s initiation camp in a village in Machinga district.

This, naturally, disturbed the patience of children’s rights groups. They sought the prompt intervention of the courts. That is why the girl we are calling Patuma was released unconditionally after an order by a magistrate at Liwonde.

Patuma only exemplifies dozens of young girls traumatized by experiences in initiation camps.

In our special report this week, Eamon Piringu lays bare how this cultural practice is abusing the rights and freedom of girls as young as four, in a setting where traditional leaders and parents believe that a girl child needs sex education at a tender age.

Chiuta Primary School is a public school in a village under Senior Chief Ngokwe in Machinga district in Southern Malawi.

Ngokwe is located some 120 kilometers east of Liwonde Township in the district.

As children play in the school grounds, one girl sits alone. Isolated from the rest.

This is the girl we are calling Patuma to avoid disparaging her modesty further.

Headteacher at Chiuta primary school, Mark Mbewu, says Patuma's performance at school has been negatively affected.

He describes the predicament that Patuma has found herself in as dehumanizing.

"The child can no longer perform at school. Patuma was in standard two before being sent to the initiation camp, and now she is repeating the class.

“The problem is that people in this community value culture a lot more than education. They can invest thousands of money just to initiate their baby-children but complain and fail to pay money for education including buying school material for their children," he added.

At the age of six, Patuma was forced by her biological mother into an initiation camp.

Patuma’s experience in the camp has traumatized her. She is no longer the jovial-and- playful-intelligent-little-school-girl she once was. She is clearly a disturbed child.

The syllabus in initiation camps includes material on how females satisfy males in bed.

Patuma is not the only girl who has been exposed to horror at such a tender age. Other girls in her area, as young as four, YES four-year-olds, have gone through the same.

Explicit sexual content that left them confused, disturbed and scared.

Ideally, initiation camps target adolescent girls. Especially at puberty. Among the Yao, the initiation camps were meant to introduce such girls to womanhood. But that clearly is no longer the case. And Patuma’s own mother, Aisha Nonga, sides with this culture.

The mother has no remorse for taking her baby into the initiation camp. This is a cultural demand, she says. All Yao girls have to go through it growing up.

"When parents feel their child is grown up, we send them for initiation. Age does not matter. This is what our ancestors left with us," she says.

But Patuma’s mother rejects the notion that Patuma was exposed to sexual issues.

"My child was never taught any sexual lessons, we just wanted to celebrate her growth," she argues.

On ordering the girl’s release from the camp, Liwonde magistrate Chrispine Sachuluka said Patuma was not of the age to be exposed to explicit sexual content in such initiation camps.

She had been in the camp for two weeks.

Group village headman Nteuka was the one who facilitated the initiation of the child.

He describes the order to prematurely release a child from initiation as an abomination among Yaos.

Progress in conventional schools has nothing to do with culture, he argues. So expect nothing to change.

"What we teach these girls is part of our tradition, education cannot be affected with initiation ceremonies, if a child is intelligent, even if you initiate her, her performance remains but an ignorant child remains ignorant. We feel they want to dilute our culture; this is strange. We will continue with what we do," said Nteuka.

In Ng’andu village also under Senior Chief Ngokwe lives a girl we shall call Mariam. She is now 16. But at age 10, then in STD 5, Mariam was forced into an initiation camp.

She and other girls her age and younger, were exposed to explicit sexual content.

"At such ceremonies we are encouraged to engage in sexual cleansing to prove our growth, I could not face a man without thinking of sleeping with him, I was confused for almost a year, I even ended up repeating the class," lamented Mariam.

Another girl, Halima, fears for the future of young girls in the area.

"As children we have no voice here. After being told to engage in cleansing, we go out to try and some have been infected with diseases and others got married," noted Halima.

In 2023 at Chiuta Primary School alone, 26 girls dropped out. Either due to early marriages, pregnancy or loss of interest.

These were learners in standard two to eight.

Yao Paramount Chief, Kawinga, blames the developments on ignorance among some chiefs on how to handle continuing harmful culture practices.

“The problem is that we are just giving chieftaincy to anyone without providing them proper training on the country’s laws, we need to mix country’s legislations and our cultural bylaws. At least Initiations should start at 10 years of age but at 6 years that is abuse.” says Kawinga.

And mental health expert, Dr. Precious Makiyi, thinks the situation is complicated.

He says exposing baby girls to such practices affects the individuals for the rest of their lives.

Dr. Makiyi believes that those forcing the practice could have mental issues dating back to their childhood, themselves.

"The effects of such practice remain for the rest of the individual's life. These babies will be with such trauma forever. The parents and the chiefs may also be the victims of culturally inflicted trauma," warned Makiyi.

The Child Care, Protection and Justice Act urges protection and care of children when at risk of physical, emotional or sexual abuse by parents, guardians or another person.

Even the Gender Equality Act of 2013 says a person shall not commit, engage in, subject another person to, or encourage the commission of any harmful practice. And even more, Malawi is a signatory to a string of treaties binding it to promotion of rights of children.

A recent UNICEF report says over 46 percent of girls in Malawi get married before turning 18, nine percent before age 15 with cultural beliefs being a major driver.

At least 712 children were sexually abused in the district in 2023 while 493 got married. Two thousand six hundred and sixty were emotionally abused. Amos Chibwana is a child-rights activist. He condemns the developments in Machinga.

"This is worthy of punishment to those exposing such girl-children to such harmful cultural practices. I suggest law enforcers should take action on the matters. This is disturbing to the early childhood development efforts," decries Chibwana.

Machinga District Social Welfare officer, Lawrence Matiti, says the practice is actually widespread across the country and is a serious cause for concern.

"This is rampant in our district; girls of less than eight years being initiated. That is why we are witnessing high numbers of school dropouts, early marriages and pregnancy especially involving girls under the age of 12 year. Culture is a burden in Machinga," said Matiti.

Habiba Osman is executive secretary for Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC). She says the commission will intervene.

"We are shocked with the revelations that these issues are still happening at a time we thought we eradicated them. The commission will institute a fact-finding mission to establish why this is happening. This is a pure violation of human rights," said Osman.

Despite that the magistrate court in Liwonde ordered that Patuma should be put in safe hands and protected from any activities that can hinder her proper growth, she still lives with her mother.

But it remains the responsibility of the nation to ensure that children, especially the girl-child are protected from harmful cultural practices which will negatively impact their future.

Child Protection Worker for Ngokwe, Ringster Nkhoma, says a lot of cases of defilement and rape go unreported in the area.

Such practices are not only confined to Machinga district as we have issues of kupimbira, kulowakufa, kusasa fumbi, kutomera in other cultures.

We are dealing with a lot; it is very unfortunate that girls in the area are being exposed to harmful cultural beliefs which are increasing cases of early marriages and unreported sexual harassment among them. I suggest the need to introduce an age limit on who should go to initiation camps,” laments Nkhoma.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 12/03/2024

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