At a recent international conference in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, a light was shed on to the practice of initiation ceremonies in which girls as young as eight are coerced to attend customary rites that “teach” them to please a man in bed as part of the preparation for womanhood.
Common in parts of southern Africa, especially in Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia, these ceremonies are held to prepare girls for married life. According to Girls Not Brides – a global partnership of more than 450 civil society organisations committed to ending child marriage – up to 142 million children will be married by the end of the decade if there is no intervention in some of the archaic customs of communities across the world.
My own country, Mozambique, has the 10th highest child marriage rate in the world – with 48% of girls married before they are 18 – and Zambia has the 15th highest – at 42%.
For me, as a child protection worker in this field for nearly a decade, the Casablanca conference was key in highlighting the issue of child marriage. It was an opportunity to discuss some of the challenges and to urge authorities to put a stop to customs that infringe the rights and freedoms of children – in particular, young girls.
Contrary to recent reports in sections of the global media, these initiation ceremonies are not “forced sex camps”.
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However, there is no doubt that some communities continue to carry out these “rites of passage” events, which have been banned by authorities. In Mozambique, such ceremonies involve female elders, “matrons”, who educate girls as young as nine on how to satisfy their husbands sexually.
Perhaps most disturbingly, the girls are also subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) in the form of labia minor lengthening and clitoral dilation – both of which are believed to enhance male pleasure. In the Cabo Delgado region of northern Mozambique, this practice is called “Ithuna” , which means deflowering of the smaller labia. It involves the application of castor oil on to the genital area while the girls’ labia are forcibly stretched up to 10cm. In the same process, ash is also used in order to dilate the clitoris.
As shocking as it might seem, these ceremonies are very popular in the communities where they are held. Two months ago, I led an awareness workshop with parents in the town of Nchancha where one father told me how the ceremonies – which typically last up to seven days – teach young girls about personal hygiene, sex within marriage, as well as moral guidance and family values.
“I would save my whole life to have my children attending initiation ceremonies because it’s important they learn what their ancestors knew, they must be prepared for married life,” he said.
As development professionals on the ground, we know that initiation rites lead to early and forced marriages. World Vision works closely with local communities and faith leaders, to understand the reasons behind child marriage; and to assess the impact of initiation rites on girls’ education.
We know from our work with teachers in the Muecate district that school drop-out rates increase significantly from 7th to 8th grade. We estimate that more than 40% of 15- to 19-year-old girls are becoming wives and mothers as they leave education for good around this time.
A girl sifts roadside sand to separate the stones to sell as building material in Inchope, northern Mozambique. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
A girl sifts roadside sand to separate the stones to sell as building material in Inchope, northern Mozambique. Photograph: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP Photo
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Not all girls are forced to leave school after initiation, but when you consider that 18% of children are married before the age of 15, and more than 50% are married before 18, you can see how widespread early marriage is. These figures, coupled with the fact that more than one in three Mozambican girls are mothers, show the scope of the challenge we face.
As one teacher told me: “Most young girls don’t complete education because once they attend these ceremonies they become adults and they don’t care about school any more. Parents save money to pay for these ceremonies, but they complain about investing in their children’s education.”
We seek to combat the negative aspects of initiation rites in three ways: raising community awareness through training of community leaders, offering technical assistance to government institutions; and providing economic support for girls at risk or who are already married.
It’s no secret that Mozambique struggles with high levels of poverty and illiteracy, but we are determined to improve the lives of girls. We believe girls deserve to have the freedom to choose whom they marry and when they have babies. They need to be treated with respect and the government must increase efforts to make that a reality.
Persilia Muianga is World Vision senior child protection manager