Initiation: Government wants to do away with traditional surgeons

2015-09-09 10:54
Obed Bapela. (GCIS)

Obed Bapela. (GCIS)

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The government is considering banning traditional surgeons from performing circumcisions and only allowing qualified medical doctors to perform the surgeries in an effort to curb the number of deaths and injuries of initiates. 

Deputy Minister for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Obed Bapela told Parliament yesterday that the government was working on a new policy to regulate traditional initiations. 

The policy would criminalise all illegal or unregistered initiation schools and would prescribe a minimum age for initiation – some of the initiates were found to be as young as eight. 

Bapela said the policy had been presented to the Cabinet but was referred back to the department to deal with certain sections. 

“The area which we still are engaging is whether we go medical male circumcision as the modernity that have to come in around circumcision.” 

He said they would still allow traditional leaders to have an 80% role in initiation. But only traditional doctors who had gone through the practice, who understand the culture and who are now professional doctors would be enlisted and identified by traditional leaders to go in to those communities and be the only ones that do the performance. 

“And we will remove completely the traditional surgeons from engaging on this matter to save lives and to save amputations,” said Bapela 

This proposal was expected to be met with resistance from traditional leaders who had previously warned the government against legislating on culture and traditional practices. 

Bapela told the Parliament oversight committee on traditional affairs that the government’s campaign on initiation was beginning to have an effect. 

“As long as there is death, one has not yet achieved.” 

Bapela said when he came to the department in 2012-2013, the deaths were about 161. That number had gone down to 34 in the past winter – between June 20 and July 20 this year. 

“We don’t know what will happen in summer – we hope it does not pick up once more,” said Bapela. 

Parliament heard that 48 340 young people went for traditional circumcision this past winter with about 30 000 in the Eastern Cape. 

Bapela said dehydration was the leading cause of death among initiates. He said due to peer pressure, some boys would not drink water for about seven days before going in “to toughen themselves” up. 

Assaults and abuse were the second-leading cause of deaths. The deputy minister said this was a new phenomenon where the boys were beaten up or assaulted to death. 

“We find that alcohol is a dominant factor [here]. Boys who had gone through the same abuse during their initiation would abuse other initiates,” he said. 

Surgical operations themselves were the third cause of death. In these cases, initiates would suffer blood loss, which led to death or a wound would become septic and gangrenous and that would lead to death or amputation. 

Bapela said there were five penis amputations this year, adding that there had been 800 such amputations in the past 15 years. 

Natural causes were the fourth-leading cause of death. They used to be the leading cause of death among initiates but the government introduced “prescreenings”, which saw boys medically tested before going for initiation – a process which encourages them to take their medication with them when they go to initiation schools. 

“It has prevented loss of life. The numbers could be higher,” said Bapela. 

He said illegal or unapproved schools remained a big challenge as “they are mushrooming all over”. 

Bapela said once there was order in the traditional leadership space, and traditional leaders had the authority on who operated schools, those people would be tested before they were given permission to operate. 

Water and food would be made available, prescreening would be done, and the conditions of the initiation schools would be inspected by the departments of traditional affairs and health. 

Bapela said age was becoming an issue in circumcision, with children as young as eight and nine taking part. 

“We are on a collision course with traditional leadership, especially in Limpopo. They are saying the younger you take them in the better because they heal faster. 

“Then I asked them ‘is it about circumcision or is it about initiation because a child cannot become a man at the age of eight or nine’. They couldn’t answer me.”

Read more on:    obed bapela  |  parliament  |  circumcision  |  initiation

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