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African Cultures and the Promotion of Sexual and Reproductive Rights

Culture can be defined as a continuous process of change that gives a community a sense of identity, dignity, continuity, security
and that binds it together. It includes beliefs, art, morals, law, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by its people. Traditional values, on the other hand, are attitudes, beliefs and actions that are standards of behaviours by which society expects its members to abide. They guide human behaviour in interpersonal, group and intergroup communications and relationships. Cultural and traditional values influence spheres of social activity such as family life, health, education, wealth distribution, politics and government. In Africa, as elsewhere, values are dynamic and continuously interact with their internal and external environment.

Debates about African cultures and traditional values date back to the 17th century when colonisation came to Africa, and they continue in the 21st century. Until the first wave of African states secured independence in the 1960s, debates on African cultures and traditions were characterised by the wholesale condescension of the colonial conquerors. The second half of the of the 20th century was, to a large extent, dominated by debates about cultural practices that perpetuate discrimination against women and that violate their sexual and reproductive rights: namely the right to a healthy, safe, consensual and enjoyable sex life; to control their bodies, and to sufficient accurate information to make decisions and seek healthy behaviours; and the right to access to affordable services that keep them healthy at all times.

The general view remains that African cultures and certain traditional practices have affected and continue to affect the health of women negatively and increased their susceptibility to certain diseases and vulnerability to male subordination. Whilst acknowledging the fact that certain African cultural practices expose women to unnecessary health risks, not all African cultural
practices are harmful.

Photo: Guengl
Photo: Guengl

Within most, if not all, African cultures an individual is expected to uphold at all times the essential principles of self-respect, respect to others, honesty, trustworthiness and compassion often referred to as “ubuntu” in the southern African region. In its essence, ubuntu expects all human beings to be “human” and to value the good of the community above self-interest. Viewed from this perspective, African cultural and traditional values and human rights should not be in conflict. In reality, some individuals violate the rights of others as part of cultural practices or use culture and tradition as excuses for their own misbehaviour.

A plethora of articles and organisations have identified harmful African cultural and traditional practices, such as male child preferences, polygamy, male and female circumcision, and the subservience and subjection of women and girls to male domination. The perpetrators are mainly men who often claim to be acting within their cultural entitlement. The victims are forced to remain in these situations through threats and violence. These harmful practices are not unique to African cultures and traditions, though, but are the consequence of a patriarchal view of society entrenched in the political-social system that insists on male superiority and rule over women through various forms of physical, social and psychological intimidation and violence.

Photo: Agenda Europe
Photo: Agenda Europe

However, the continued “othering” and portrayal of Africans as victims of their own cultures and traditions is disempowering and even dangerous as these practices move underground, opening them up for abuse by unscrupulous practitioners who have no knowledge of or distort the culture they claim to represent.

It is therefore imperative to identify and find ways to use elements of African cultures that help to promote human rights, women’s rights, and sexual and reproductive rights. The key question then becomes: what type of interventions are necessary to achieve this? Against this backdrop, this article explores the merits of community participation in the promotion of sexual and reproductive rights in the context of cultural practices in South Africa.

Merits of Community Oriented Views for the Promotion of Sexual and Reproductive Rights

Photo: Julia Pernet European Humanist Federation
Photo: Julia Pernet European Humanist Federation

South Africa faces enormous sexual and reproductive health and rights challenges: gender-based violence is rampant, with about 56 percent of female homicides recorded in 2009 committed by an intimate partner. UNAIDS statistics for 2014 indicate that 18.9 percent of the South African population between the ages of 15 and 49 is living with HIV. The maternal mortality rate in 2011 was estimated at 197 deaths per 100 000 live births, way off the Millennium Development Goal target of 38 deaths per 100 000 live births. Every year, scores of young men die or are deformed as a result of botched male circumcisions. Young people in rural areas continue to face substantial barriers to sexual and reproductive health information and services, such as access to comprehensive treatment, prevention and care for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and maternal and child health services.

Puberty rites for girls and male circumcision are integral to a number of South African cultures. They are not only an indication of society’s interest in sexuality development amongst young people but also offer potential vehicles for the promotion of sexual and reproductive health and rights. Interventions to use these rites of passage for improving sexual and reproductive health and rights have met with either success or failure depending on context and approach. Two examples will illustrate this point.

Puberty Rites Among the Vatsonga

Puberty rites have different names and different practices in the various regions of South Africa. Vukhomba, as the rite is known among the Vatsonga of Limpopo province, is exclusively conducted for girls who have reached menarche. Vukhomba is seen to empower women to claim their position in society and strengthen loyalties between the members of the group of initiates. While women acquire temporary recognition and status in the community during the rites, they go back to the low status prescribed by society once the rites are over. Sexuality education in vukhomba is usually limited to personal hygiene and the maintenance of virginity, self-control and social morals. The teachings are given in a non-threatening environment through songs, poems, demonstrations and figurines that are shown to the initiates. They encourage abstinence – an important aspect in the prevention of HIV infection – but do not teach initiates about HIV/AIDS, and there is no evidence of a difference in the prevalence of teenage pregnancy between initiated and uninitiated teenage girls. Although this rite of passage does not address human rights, taboos are used to prevent violence against women. Initiates are not made aware of their reproductive rights, such as the right to make decisions concerning reproduction free from discrimination, coercion and violence. The information given is at times unclear and not easy to understand.

Vukhomba Bya Sagwadi Hlungwani ( 22/12/2014) Photo: Youtube
Vukhomba Bya Sagwadi Hlungwani ( 22/12/2014) Photo: Youtube

But since vukhomba brings initiated women and initiated girls together and accommodates new learning that can empower the initiates and women, it could serve as an appropriate platform for sexual health education for these different age groups. Furthermore, the initiated girls could be available for peer teaching, not only during the initiation, but also in the community and at school.

Based on these observations, a sexual health education programme was developed by this author, with full participation of the initiated and uninitiated girls and women, and implemented in the participating communities. The draft sexual health programme was presented during the vukhomba to elders, initiated women, and initiated girls in the form of a talk to give them a feel for what would be discussed. It was presented in Xitsonga and visual aids were used to clarify some aspects. Table 1 indicates the topics presented and the participants’ responses or choices.

The participants approved eight of the 11 topics presented for inclusion in the intervention programme. All the topics that were not approved by the vukhomba elders were left out of the final intervention programme. However, it was hoped that some of them could be explored if questions arose. The sexual health programme benefited both the initiated girls and women and was extended to other young people in the participating villages. The programme was not formally evaluated, but its popularity in the participating communities serves as indication of its acceptance.

Sagwadi Hlugwani 1A ( VuKhomba 21 Dec 2013 ) Vuhehli Village under Giyani. Photo: Youtube
Sagwadi Hlugwani 1A ( VuKhomba 21 Dec 2013 ) Vuhehli Village under Giyani. Photo: Youtube

Male Circumcision among the Amapondo

In the 1820s in the Eastern Cape province, King Faku of the Amapondo banned male circumcision because of ongoing attacks by the Zulu King Shaka during times when initiations were in progress. The re-emergence of male circumcision in the 1990s, when almost all male adults were uncircumcised, plunged this cultural practice into deep trouble due to a lack of direct adult supervision. In Amapondo culture, an uncircumcised male is considered to be a boy and, worse, an inja (dog). As most fathers, uncles and grandfathers were not initiated, many boys turned to traditional attendants, often self-appointed, who lacked the requisite competence and knowledge, leading to complications and deaths. While accurate statistics are not available, about 950 circumcision-related deaths have been recorded since 1995 in the Eastern Cape alone.

Although the government introduced legislative and health interventions for safe circumcision and wound care, deaths continue to occur. The target communities rejected surgeons and nurses who were trained to ensure safe practice as government impositions. The enforcement of the Health Standards in Traditional Circumcision Act (Act No. 6 of 2001) has seen further rapid increases in illegal circumcision schools and untrained surgeons operating underground, leaving boys to suffer and die alone. Criminals and drug lords have taken over this cultural practice and have deliberately ignored the cultural circumcision protocol in order to gain new “customers”.

Abakhwetha (Initiates) from the Jara village near Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape are attending the initiate school that will turn them from boys to men. 11/07/2012 Photo: Oupa Nkosi
Abakhwetha (Initiates) from the Jara village near Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape are attending the initiate school that will turn them from boys to men. 11/07/2012 Photo: Oupa Nkosi

The stakeholders in the affected communities themselves need to get engaged in finding solutions. It is necessary for them to find out what is done differently in communities that do not experience these complications with traditional circumcision and to learn from them. Parents need to challenge traditional leaders to ensure that all circumcision schools in their communities are legal and conducted by trained people. Uninitiated boys need to be educated about the presence of illegal initiations practices in their communities. Fathers and uncles of initiates should supervise the initiation of their boys and be present at the initiation school at all times. Only then can a cultural practice that is currently a hazard to sexual and reproductive rights become a platform that helps to promote them.

Photo: Julia Pernet /European Humanist Federation
Photo: Julia Pernet /European Humanist Federation

Conclusion

The above examples illustrate not only the paramount importance of community participation in any intervention strategy but also that African cultures and traditional values are dynamic and adaptable. Approached correctly, they can be used as vehicles for the promotion of sexual and reproductive rights. A lack of community engagement and top-down enforcement of interventions will always be met with resistance and lead to unintended outcomes. Awareness of sexual and reproductive rights among young people will encourage them to ensure that their cultural practices are safe. Their knowledge about and protection of their sexual rights need not interfere with the protection of cultural values but rather can enhance those cultural values and help them to evolve and accommodate new practices that protect the initiates and the community.

This article was first published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Perspectives and is republished here with their permission.

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