If you happen to visit the lower Shire district of Chikwawa, every person you meet will most likely tell you that they are no longer practicing harmful cultural practices.
The district is well known for ‘kupita or kulowa kufa’ a sexual cleansing ritual after death of a loved one and initiation ceremonies which are a must do for girls at puberty.
These are the practices that encourage early sex debut, bring in a lot of teen pregnancies and increased cases of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), especially among young people.
The traditional leaders that Malawi News spoke to have also emphasized that they banished all sexual ritual practices and replaced them with other seemingly ‘safer’ cultural practices.
Group Village Head – GVH Sekeni of Traditional Authority Lundu in the district admitted that the youth of her area are engaging in a lot of sexual activities but stressed that it has nothing to do with cultural practices.
“Last year alone, I know of seven girls that dropped out of school due to pregnancies but one returned to school after delivery. We are still doing initiation ceremonies after a girl has begun her menstruation(s) but it’s no longer about seducing or pleasing men in bed as it was initially the case. They are only told about how to take care of themselves and what the menstruation means to their sexual and reproductive health development,” she stressed.
The GVH added that there are some practices that cannot be let go like ‘kupita kufa’ but sex is no longer used as a cleansing tool.
“A day after burial, we convene a family meeting. Every member drinks the native medicine, taken together with porridge. Thereafter, another type of native medicine is used to wash their hands. This is what is currently being done as a substitute for that ritual,” she narrated, adding that if none of such is done, it means more calamities will befall that family. This new tradition has been practiced for four years now.
Another substitute to the sexual cleansing, GVH Dwanya of TA Makhwira revealed, is the selection of a couple to do the sexual cleansing for a specified period.
“Initially, if one lost a husband, some man was supposed to sleep with the widow in their bedroom. But now, if the husband dies, a couple within their family is chosen to perform the sexual ‘cleansing’ ritual for two days. At the elapse of these days, the whole family gets together to have Nsima with beans as a sign that all is now well,” he explained.
But Gender Officer for Chikwawa district, Rita Sukasuka believes that the harmful cultural practices are still there, just that the communities are now ‘discreet’. According to her, eight out of ten girls get married or are impregnated after initiation ceremonies.
“I’m so sure about this because child marriages, teen pregnancies, STI infections and school drop outs are still haunting this district. The initiation ceremonies are still there and because it’s done behind closed doors, nobody has a clear picture of what these girls are taught there,” she claimed.
Sukasuka revealed that she has had a chat with some girls and parents in her work capacity and their statements are a clear indication that the problem still exists.
“The chiefs will come to meetings and tell everyone that they are no longer practicing any sexual rituals but they are still doing it. The parents I have met indicate that they can’t stop their child from going to initiation camps because those that don’t do it are given a punishment to pay for defying traditional rituals. This is an indication that the chiefs are also encouraging this practice,” she narrated.
According to the Gender Officer, the parents are encouraging the practices, especially the child marriages, because they receive a bride price and they get some money or some kind of continuous ‘support’ from the son in-law.
“There is a culture of silence in the communities. Even the sexual cleansing rituals are happening but women are not bold enough to report. The traditional leaders may be doing this because they fear that many people will die and they will have no one to lead, it’s called ‘kulaula mudzi’ (taboo),” Sukasuka said.
But GVH Dwanya, while admitting that initiation ceremonies are a must for adolescents, insisted that the harmful traditions have been banished because, instead of preventing calamities, they brought more calamities such as the AIDS epidemic.
“We have learnt our lessons and we are trying everything possible to save the youth from these calamities,” she said, disclosing that recently a man was punished with a penalty of K10, 000, a goat and other things for impregnating a girl who had not yet gone through the initiation ceremony rite.
Nurse at Chikwawa district hospital, Fraction Banda said the facility usually has 15 teen pregnancies per month and five of them usually develop complications.
He added that in addition, the facility usually has 20 cases of teenage girls seeking post abortion services.
“They usually do not admit to have terminated a pregnancy but we only get to establish this after examining them. They usually present cases of heavy bleeding,” Banda said.
He also revealed that even though he does not have an updated data, the youth, mostly those aged 12 to 18 years old, are seeking assistance for STI treatment at the facility.
“There seem to be a lot of unprotected sex among the youths themselves or with adults,” Banda said, stressing that almost all health facilities in the district have Youth Friendly Health Services and various platforms have been utilised to educate the youth on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR).
Project Manager for Unicef Project on SRH (through Pakachere Health and Development Institute) on Interventions to support adolescents affected by floods, Shida Gomani said the traditional leaders admitted to have stopped practicing harmful cultural practices and are trying everything possible to withdraw young girls from marriages.
“Of course, it’s very tricky for us to know what is happening underground…There is a possibility that they could be telling us what we want to hear. But this could be food for thought and another area for us to find out more on,” she said.
Gomani added that her project aims at reaching out to adolescent girls with SRH information after a baseline study revealed that in the aftermath of the 2015 floods, they faced sexual abuse, dropped out of school and were forced into marriages whilst still young.
“We had to involve boys, traditional leaders and parents as well because they all play a part for a girl child to be educated and protected from all sorts of abuse,” she said.
The project was launched in August 2017 and is expected to end in August 2018.
“Much as the targeted population seems to have grasped the aspect of the project, one year is a short period of time to work on a behaviour pattern. There is need for a longer period to assess impact as most communities have the tendency of going back to their ways once a project has finished,” Gomani concluded.
There might be more to the issue of the existence of sexual rites than what meets the eye; or perhaps it may take some time for people of lower Shire districts to reveal more about these rituals, considering what happened to Eric Aniva after media reports published his experience of ‘kupita kufa’ in the neighbouring district of Nsanje.
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