Police in eastern Malawi have torched several initiation camps which were allegedly teaching children s#xual skills instead of offering them “sound advice”.
Machinga District Police Spokesperson Dave Sulumba confirmed the move in an interview. “We have indeed torched some initiation camps built along river banks and on mountain slopes. We are not against the cultural practice of chinamwali (initiation) but the government wants children to go to school,” he said.
According to Sulumba, many traditional chiefs have supported the torching of the shacks being used as initiation camps because the new school year is now in session.
“There is realisation amongst most chiefs that initiation ceremonies are linked to teenage pregnancies and child marriages. These can be addressed by improving children’s access to basic education,” he said.
Initiation ceremonies in rural Malawi are regarded as the transitional passage from childhood to adulthood.
During school holidays, children spend some weeks at initiation camps where they are taught household chores and how to conduct themselves once married.
There are mixed reactions on whether the practice should continue.
Some believe that initiation ceremonies are part of cultural preservation while others regard them as s#x-training camps which fuel s#xually risk behaviour amongst the youth.
Some initiated youths have also complained of wasting their time at initiation camps where they claim the key lessons are about how to perform s#x in bed.
“There is nothing like cultural education at such camps, as the focus is on s#xual education and the singing of obscene songs,” said one newly initiate.
She said the so-called graduation from childhood to adulthood through initiation ceremonies focuses on how to have s#x and lose virginity.
Malawi Human Rights Commission in its reports on traditional cultural practices made a similar observation that the performance of s#x is emphasized at initiation ceremonies.
“The girls are taken to this isolated place, which is called thedzo and tsimba (initiation camp) where they are taught some pieces of advice. The girls are also taught how to offer the best s#x to their male counterparts,” reads the Commission’s report in part.
The commission made the observation in a report titled “Cultural Practices and their Impact on the Enjoyment of Human Rights, Particularly the Rights of Women and Children in Malawi.”
A local human rights group, Girls with Passion believes that the consequences of initiation ceremonies include HIV transmission and upsurge of child marriages.
“Initiation ceremonies should be banned. Teaching girls how to perform s#x in bed at initiation ceremonies is one of the drivers of early marriages and teenage pregnancies,” says the group director Darlington Harawa.
According to Harawa, the worst part of it is that both boys and girls are encouraged to have s#x as a proof that they have indeed graduated from childhood to adulthood.
He explained: “The problem is that some get infected with HIV in the process of proving that they are grown up after being to initiation camps.”
The advice they receive from initiation ceremonies, coupled with dire poverty, is what leads drives young girls into prostitution and early marriages.
“The problem of early marriages can be addressed by reforming or even banning such practices as chinamwali or initiation ceremonies,” Harawa explained.
According to a Report of Profiling Early Marriages in Malawi by National Youth Council, half of Malawian females marry before they reach their 18th birthday.
The council says 35% of females aged between 15 and 19 become pregnant or mothers annually an indication of high teenage pregnancies.
Besides encouraging promiscuity, initiation rites are also in the spotlight because of the injuries and the death that occur at such camps.
In July this year, for instance, a 13-year-old boy died at one of the initiation camps in central Malawi’s district of Kasungu due to severe bleeding, after undergoing circumcision.
The police confirmed that Sayineti died on a river bank and the initiation camp leaders buried him without taking his body to a hospital.
“Medical personnel and police officers exhumed the body and conducted a postmortem which showed the boy died of severe bleeding due to the circumcision which went wrong,” said Kasungu police publicist Edna Mzingwitsa.
Initiation ceremonies are not only rampant in Malawi but in several African countries where this rite of passage into adulthood follows a bush retreat of some weeks and is widely seen as a test of physical endurance.