Zambia: Trauma or Training? Zambians Split Over Sexual Initiation Ceremonies

Lusaka, Zambia — Zambia’s traditional counselors are rethinking the country’s puberty rites, which some argue are detrimental to girls’ well-being.

On a sunny afternoon in Chipungu, a clean-swept hamlet in Rufunsa, a rural district east of Lusaka, three girls who have recently reached puberty sit on the floor of a thatched roof hut in the center of the village. The girls, wearing only their underpants, are seated on a reed mat, their legs stretched out and heads bowed. Around them, women take turns performing sexually suggestive dances, aimed at teaching the teenagers how to engage in sexual acts.

This is an essential part of the traditional female initiation ceremony into adulthood, known as Chinamwali in Zambia’s Eastern province and Chisungu in the country’s Northern province. Here, for the next few weeks, the girls will learn how to serve and sexually please their future husbands.

Margaret Banda, a 54-year-old woman who serves as the community’s apungu — a local term that refers to the ritual’s mistress of ceremony — raises the girls’ heads, forcing them to watch the women and demonstrate what they’ve learned. It is then the teenagers’ turn to repeat the dances.

While there are no statistics on the number of girls who undergo puberty rites in Zambia, experts say these ceremonies are widespread. “We have taught girls from all angles of Zambia,” says Phales Chipala, the executive director of the Zambia National Traditional Counsellors Association, which represents the country’s apungus as well as other traditional counselors.

Children’s advocates have raised concerns about initiation ceremonies like Chinamwali, arguing that they’re not only age-inappropriate but also promote gender-role stereotypes, discourage girls’ education and ultimately make teenagers more vulnerable to child marriage and sexual abuse.

“Teaching girls how to have sex at a tender age is detrimental to the development of the girl child,” says Aaron Chansa, executive director of the National Action for Quality Education in Zambia, an organization that focuses on child development and access to education.

Medical experts have pointed out that this tradition also exposes girls to potential health problems. While during the day, girls are taught how to become subservient wives, at night, they are pressured to repeatedly stretch their labia minora, in the belief that elongated labia can enhance men’s sexual pleasure. “It is a lot of pain endured during elongation,” explains Mutinta Muyuni, a Lusaka-based gynecologist. The elongation process can also cause swelling, inflammation and infections.

There is also the possibility of initiates developing other problems beyond physical pain.

Benjamin Samusiko, a Lusaka-based psychotherapist, says such rites can be categorized as sexual harassment and can have long-lasting traumatic effects on the girls.

“Untreated trauma can lead to self-esteem issues, confidence issues and body image issues. In more severe cases, it can lead to self-harm tendencies, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and behaviors, and substance abuse,” he says.

As part of the ceremony, girls must isolate for long spells and are sometimes forced to miss school for up to three months. During that period, they’re only allowed outside at dawn, to sweep the yard and clean dishes. When they need to use the outdoor restroom, their apungu escorts them, covering them in a bedsheet. No one is supposed to see the girls until their mistress of ceremony declares them ready for society.

Only then, the teenagers are reintroduced to their community in a public ritual where they must dance on a stage in front of the entire village.

“This signifies that the girls are now women ready to take up the chores of womanhood, including marriage,” Banda says. “All of us have been through this process.”

Although the country’s Children’s Code Act protects minors from any harmful traditional practices, many cases may go unreported because the public is unfamiliar with the law.

Approved last year, the law punishes violations with fines and up to 10 years in jail.

Doreen Mwamba, minister of Community Development and Social Services, says the government does not condone any tradition that inflicts pain or negatively affects a child’s welfare. But she too is cognizant of the limitations.

“The only problem we have is that these things are done in secrecy, and most people, especially in rural areas, are not enlightened on the law, hence do not report such abuse to the relevant authority,” she says.

Research suggests that there is a connection between traditional ceremonies and early pregnancies. Initiation ceremonies, in fact, are particularly widespread in rural areas, which account for 80% of all teenage pregnancies reported annually in the country.

“There is pressure to want to experience what you learned, and that is how most girls get pregnant,” says Nancy Mwewa, 37, a traditional counselor, who dropped out of school after she got pregnant at 15.

Mwewa recalls that, after dancing in front of the entire village at the end of her initiation ceremony, she began being perceived as a sexual object by the men in her community. “There were too many men that were after me. I gave in,” she says. “I ended up pregnant and married.”

Her experience is far from unique. Parents often arrange for their teenage daughters to get married and leave school when they get pregnant.

“I wish I had not known about sex,” Mwewa says. “I could have completed my education.”

Chipala acknowledges the risks of young girls’ sexualization. She believes that puberty rites can lead teenagers to consider sex as their duty, making it more difficult for them to identify sexual abuse and report it to the authorities.

Following concerns about these teachings, Chipala’s organization is now advising traditional counselors to censor what they teach girls during the rites. She says that they’ve also drafted a manual to train traditional counselors on what’s appropriate for young girls to learn.

“Of course, we can’t reach everyone, but we are determined to change the face of initiation ceremonies,” Chipala says. “[In the manual,] we have incorporated human rights, rights of a child, empowerment of women.”

In rural areas, some local leaders support these changes. “We want the women to focus more on important things like respect and cleanliness and making a girl child assertive, making a girl believe in herself, that she can achieve anything that she puts her mind to,” says Chief Bunda-Bunda of the Soli people in Rufunsa.