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Mwase was just 10 when she was led, along with about a dozen other girls, to remote huts outside her village during winter vacation from school in August. The girls were accompanied by older women from their village in Chiradzulu district, near the border with Mozambique. According to Mwase, most of the two weeks she spent at the initiation camp were dedicated to learning how to engage in sexual acts. She had been excited for this time with friends away from home, but that feeling quickly gave way to dread as she learned the true purpose of initiation.
The man should be on top of you and you should be dancing for him, making him happy. The anamkungwi told the girls to lie on top of one another and get a feel for the various positions described to them. These guardians often force their daughters to go through with the ritual for fear of breaking with tradition.
Initiation is a centuries-old practice in the region, according to Harriet Chanza of the World Health Organization. You are either or an adult. The emphasis on having sex may also have a darker purpose in a country where nearly three-fourths of the population lives below the poverty line. Chanza, who is based in Malawi, says that some parents may actually want their daughters to get pregnant at a young age. A girl is often married soon after she is found to be pregnant, deferring the cost of caring for her and her baby from her parents to her husband.
You should do it plain. Mwase sits in an uneven plastic lawn chair in an empty hall used for community gatherings as she recounts her experiences. Her small, sharp eyes aglow in the dimly lit room, a grain mill whirring in the backgroundMwase says the anamkungwi who oversaw her initiation told her to find an older man to have sex with after she left the camp.
In defiance of tradition, however, Mwase refused to do so, fearing the costs to her health from unprotected sex. Like many first-born daughters in Malawi, Mwase was raised by her grandmother. Through this she acquires the respect of her spouse and of the neighbourhood as a moral community. This is what a girl learns during her initiation into womanhood, and that she is told during her wedding ceremony.
Despite the social role of initiations, there are numerous public-health concerns surrounding the custom in Malawi.
Young girls largely unaware of the risks are being told to have unprotected sex in a country where a tenth of the population is HIV-positive. While this figure is on par with other countries in the region, it is far higher than rates elsewhere in the world; 70 percent of AIDS-related deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Teenage pregnancies also abound in Malawi, where one in four teen girls under 18 is a mother in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, more than 50 percent of births take place during adolescence. The young age at which girls become pregnant complicates their deliveries and puts them at greater risk for losing their babies, losing their lives, or developing an obstetric fistula—a condition where a rupture in the birth canal leaves women suffering from incontinence and ostracized from their communities.
Female genital mutilation, which often entails the complete or partial removal of the clitoris, is not common in Malawi, though it can take place during similar rites of passage in other parts of Africa. But initiation can leave lasting trauma even without physical injury.
For boys in Malawi, and in several other African countries, initiation sometimes involves circumcision. Initiations for boys can easily go awry because the circumcisions are often performed by people without medical training wielding ritual knifes. I have put [in] bylaws [to prohibit initiations].
We speak over dinner beside the glittering but parasite-ridden Lake Malawi. Here in southern Malawi, where initiations are most widespread, girls are often married off as soon as they reach puberty, and literacy rates are among the lowest in the country. In the district of Mangochi, which borders the lake, 48 percent of teenagers have begun bearing children—the highest incidence in Malawi.
Mwandira says it is hard to persuade local leaders here and elsewhere in the country to stop a custom that has such a long history, especially since annual initiations for boys and girls have become a kind of industry. In the face of public scrutiny, those who have a vested interest in keeping the custom alive try to do so covertly.
Initiation camps are held outside villages in temporary shelters built just for this purpose and then burned to the ground once children are sent home, Mwandira says. I spent a day in Mangochi, asking every young woman I could whether she had been initiated.
In Chiradzulu, a few hours south by car, Grace Mwase was the rare exception willing to speak about her experiences with initiation. The group is led by a woman named Joyce Mkandawire. She says that when she first arrived in Chiradzulu, where Mwase lives, she was struck by the lack of freedom afforded to girls.
Mkandawire is now advocating for new bylaws in local villages to bar teenage girls from getting married. She has also reached out to local headmasters, who notify her when a girl has dropped out of school so that she and the Girls Empowerment Network can try to convince her to return—and to focus on education rather than marriage.
In speaking out about these issues, Mkandawire has inspired girls like Mwase to do the same. If there is anything [wrong], I go to the elders and speak to them. Reporting for this story was made possible through a United Nations Foundation press fellowship. Popular Latest. The Atlantic Crossword. In Subscribe.
Joyce Mkandawire poses with young mothers from the Girls Empowerment Network. Beenish Ahmed.Adult want real sex Wind Point
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Confronting a Sexual Rite of Passage in Malawi