Circumcision Debates

Male initiation ceremonies receive a lot of attention in South Africa, but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of focussing on the cultural relevance of the practice, most news reports are instead forced to look at the danger involved as dozens of young boys die at the hands of untrained circumcision practitioners every year – it’s estimated that a staggering five hundred adolescents died during initiation ceremonies between 2008 and 2014. The majority of the deaths are the result of circumcisions gone wrong, with many boys also being the victims of penile mutation, but there’s also the danger of dehydration – often the boys are discouraged from drinking water as it’s seen as a sign of weakness, with the cold also sometimes playing a role.

Until recently KwaZulu-Natal wasn’t really part of the discussion, with the practice having been out of favour amongst Zulus since the 19th century. Initiation ceremonies were banned by King Shaka because it robbed his army of warrior-age men for months at a time, but King Zwelithini has brought the practice back, and with good reason. Aside from the cultural aspect, studies show that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60% – a staggering figure, and one of particular significance in KZN, which has the highest rate of new HIV infections in the country, with South Africa having the largest number of people living with HIV in the world.

The National House of Traditional Leaders is working with government, which has set up a National Initiation Task Team, to do their level best to improve the safety of traditional circumcisions. National policy approved in April this year requires that all initiates be 16 years or older; obtain a certificate of good health from a registered medical doctor before initiation; obtain their parents’ written consent; and only attend initiation schools that have been registered through the local chief or municipality. But unfortunately enforcement is another issue and the reality of the danger of initiation ceremonies in their current form persists – as of last week a total of 23 initiates had died during the summer initiation season, a figure that despite being down on previous years, is still unacceptable.

This is an ongoing debate, but given the cultural relevance of the initiation ceremonies, and the massive impact the practice could make on fighting new HIV infections, it is definitely one worth pursuing. Watch this space as we see what difference government interventions have on the proper running of our initiation schools going forward.

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