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Girls’ Initiation Rites in Mozambique: Opposing Views

Achieving widespread change in attitudes towards women’s role in society takes a sustained, concerted effort over a longer time frame.
FROM: Jane Carter – 10. February 2016
© Helvetas

This week I have been reading through documents from an EU-funded project supporting women’s empowerment in Northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province – an area that I visited back in May 2014. The project, Ocupali, is at the end of its three year phase, so it is time to draw out lessons learned. The most obvious observation is that whilst it is possible to support women’s literacy and savings groups, and the training of officials, within a three year time frame, achieving widespread change in attitudes towards women’s role in society takes a sustained, concerted effort over a longer time frame. This hardly needs pointing out, though sometimes donor requirements result in rather overly optimistic project objectives.

As part of its work in influencing public attitudes and raising awareness of women’s rights, Ocupali supported a radio “soap” drama comprising a series of 24 emissions. The drama was written by a well-known Mozambican author, Paulina Chiziane, translated into the local language of Emakhuwa, and performed by professional actors. Aired to an estimated audience of over 130,000 people, the series covered a variety of topics – child marriage; adolescent pregnancies; gender-based violence; marital disputes; polygamy; the role of traditional authorities, the police and the courts; women’s savings and credit groups. Possibly the most controversial topic covered was girl’s initiation rites. Whilst I am no authority on this subject, my visit in 2014 made me aware of very different schools of thought on the matter.

The two main ethnic groups of the area, the Makhuwa and the Makonde, are both matrilineal by tradition. Thus, in contrast to the rest of Mozambique, land passed from mother to daughter, with young men marrying into the family. This gave women considerable authority over issues related to land and food – although much decisionmaking power was still held by men of the maternal line (especially maternal uncles). I use the past tense as the system is less prominent than it used to be. Integral to the matrilineal system was the practice of initiation rites for girls entering puberty, in which they were taught by an older woman, a namalaka, how to please a man. Whilst no genital cutting is involved, part of the rites involve the pulling and stretching of the labia.

Under the early days of the left-wing Frelimo government (following Mozambique’s independence from Portuguese colonial rule), initiation rites were widely criticised and publically banned on the grounds that they promoted women’s subservience to men and hindered the advancement of women. Some social scientists argue, however, that this was and is a simplistic understanding of the rites, and that in fact they equip girls with a sexual education, and provide women with a joyful opportunity to assert their feminine identities. The most prominent advocate of this view is the Danish sociologist Signe Arnfred, who has worked for many years in Northern Mozambique, and written widely. Her interpretation is contested by others, especially lawyers and women’s rights groups such as Women in Law in Southern Africa. WLSA members argue that initiation rites harm bodily integrity, promote promiscuity and early marriage, and are actually a violation of the rights of the girl child. These opposing views are held quite passionately. Of course the matter is further complicated by a key proponent of initiation rites being a foreigner – albeit one who has spent far more time in Northern Mozambican villages than most Mozambican lawyers, especially those based in distant Maputo in the South of the country.

So who is right? Possibly it is a mix of both, depending on individual circumstances. Possibly initiation rites could be adapted to educate girls on their rights, and on practical matters such as how to avoid early pregnancy. It is a fact that such rites are still practiced in many parts of Northern Mozambique, with those involved now feeling no need to hide their activities. Indeed, I met one namalaka myself, a cheerful woman named Himiani Marquiz whose photo appears at the top of this posting. She was proud of her skills, and clearly recognised for them by others – implying that the topic can be discussed readily and openly.

So this was the intention of the radio plays: to raise awareness of women’s rights, and stimulate discussion on changing norms and values. Although the “soaps” did not set out the different viewpoints on initiation rites so starkly, they made the practice an issue for reflection. To take further action, though, would require a whole new project.

Director, Programme Development
Jane Carter