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Zambian sex initiators lead revolution for young women

by Jane Labous | Plan International
Tuesday, 28 April 2015 11:27 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Ancient rites of passage are being updated in Zambia, led by forward-thinking Alangizi, or traditional initiators

Initiation rites that have taken place for thousands of years in Zambia are being radically modernised, as traditional initiators concentrate on cooking and etiquette skills rather than sexual training.

The chinamwali ceremony is typical to the Eastern Province region of Zambia.

During the ceremony, female Alangizi, or initiators,traditionallyteach sex skills to girls as young as 12.

The three month ritual is rarely talked about in Zambia, and all girls who undergo the initiation rite are sworn to secrecy about their experience.

But now the Alangizi believe girls should only receive the sex initiation when they are older and ready to be married.

The key, they say, is to keep the tradition intact – while keeping young girls safe.

Subtle changes

As part of its global campaign, ‘Because I Am A Girl’, Plan International is working with the Alangizi to make subtle changes to the ancient ceremony.

Anna* is a community development facilitator with Plan International in Chadiza district, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Anna says: “The initiation ceremonies teach the girls how to handle a man in the bedroom. Everything, how to clean, how to shave, as long as they reach puberty, at 11 or 12 years, a girl is taken in an initiation ceremony and taught all of these things.”

In the past, once the girls have completed their three month training, they have been traditionally sent to be ‘tested’ by an older man in the community.

“When they’re through with the initiation, they’re given a man to test whether they can handle him,” says Anna.

“They choose a man from within the community, who tests to find out whether the girl has been properly trained. If not she goes back. I met a tester last week who confessed that he has tested 12 girls and out of the 12, he sent one back to the initiators because she knew nothing.”

One in seven people in Zambia is HIV positive (UN, 2010) and life expectancy has fallen to just 49 years because of the disease.

Many of the testers do not use a condom.

Plan is working with the Alangizi and community chiefs and elders to phase out this practice completely.

“Some girls get pregnant from the test,” says Anna. “This is what, as Plan, we are trying to stop. Through education programmes, information sharing, communication, these things are reducing now. Such practices are being phased out. We are getting the message across loud and clear.”

She adds: “If you look at Chadiza, it is one of the least developed, illiteracy is still high and women are very illiterate. The contributing factor is the initiation ceremony because not many girls reach secondary level. After the ceremony they test and get pregnant – either from the test or because they want to carry on and practise their new skills - then drop out of school.”

Updating tradition

Phyliss*, 44, is one of the chinamwali initiators working with Plan.

Phyliss says that while tradition is important, the ceremony must be changed because, once they know the skills, girls want to have sex early – and are often lured into having sex, resulting in early pregnancy or marriage.

Phyliss says: “Our initiation ceremony is good because it is a tradition given to us by our ancestors, but there are disadvantages. Once the girls are taught sexual skills, they want to try them out, so they get pregnant really quickly.”

“Often, young girls aren’t scared of men, even older men, because they say they know how to handle them. After the ceremonies, girls drop out of school because of what they been taught - all their focus is on sex and marriage. Boys prey on the girls who have been initiated, so they are tempted into having sex.”

Phyliss and her fellow initiators have changed the chinamwali ceremony they perform, to focus on simple health messages, how to cope with periods, keeping a clean house and respecting your parents. All sexual content has been taken out.

Initiator Rebecca, 48, has been initiating girls for years in Chilenga community – but says the arrival of Plan changed her attitude completely.

As girls, Rebecca says her and her peers sensed that they were being taught things that they were too young to know – but were helpless in the face of tradition.

Rebecca says: “Before Plan came in, we used to teach girls between 12 and 15 everything to do with sex; how to handle a man in the bedroom, how to shave him, clean him after sex, dancing to please a man during sex and how to serve a man.

“From the time that Plan came and told us about these things, we no longer do this. We teach hygiene, respect, periods and cooking. But we do not teach them how to dance in bed.

“I’m spreading the message on how good it is to send girls to school. I’ve noticed that a lot of girls no longer get pregnant and go on to secondary school because of the change in initiation ceremonies.”

Spreading the message

Plan’s Umoyo Wama Youth Project, run in the Chadiza region of Zambia’s Eastern Province in collaboration with AstraZeneca and Planned Parenthood Association of Zambia, works with initiators, community elders and schoolchildren.

Over three years, the scheme is expected to directly benefit 10,000 girls.

Activities include drama group awareness sessions, with actors portraying messages about HIV Aids, contraception and the importance of education.

Queen Bow, Project Coordinator for Plan International’s Youth Health Programme and Planned Parenthood Zambia, says the performances concentrate on health issues.

“The performances have various topics around reproductive health, like HIV Aids, early marriages, STIs, unwanted pregnancies, pre-marital sex. The do informal sketches and the peer educators will then interpret the sketch to the community.

“Reproductive health for young people here is a problem, as is early marriage. We are trying to tackle these issues so that young girls and their parents can see the dangers.”

Anna adds: “We have a lot to talk about with the initiators. We are trying as the child protection sector to change the curricular; we have trained a lot of initiators and are trying to remove what is bad for a girl child. So that these other things they are taught at the right age, when they are taken for marriages. We’re getting the message across loud and clear.”

Education and health messages

The project is helping local women like Rebecca and Phyliss change the curriculum of the chinamwali, so that whatever the alangizi teach, it does not harm young girls.

“We’ve trained initiators to remove the sexual content,” says Anna, “so that young women are only taught these things when they are ready for marriage. In the past, people never used to come out in the open about this issue. Girls were seen as there to bring income to the home - their futures were early marriage, early pregnancy. Now they’re being given the same opportunities as boys and the percentage of girls enrolling at school is growing.”

“We’re getting the message across loud and clear,” adds Anna.

Alangizi are now passionately advocating for girls to be initiated only when they are ready for marriage.

Two week chinamwali ceremonies now focus on simple health messages, how to cope with periods, keeping a clean house and respecting your parents.

They can also be scheduled for the school holidays, so that girls do not miss out on lessons.

The Alangizi trained by Plan will even get the police involved if a girl is taken out of school to be initiated.

Says Phyliss: “We are working on raising awareness among parents and elders. They know that it will be reported to the traditional leader if they force an initiation, and we can even get the police involved to get the girl back in school.

“We want to wait for the girls to finish school and only put them through the ceremony when they are ready to get married. This is the ideal way to update our tradition.”


*Some names have been changed