After 17 boys died during the winter initiation season that ended this week, women in the Eastern Cape want to become more involved in the custom because men are failing to protect the boys.
The involvement of women in the custom is taboo and they are prohibited from visiting initiation schools when the boys are there.
Nolitha Ntobongwana, ANC Women’s League provincial secretary, said that while they did not want to be intimately involved in the tradition, many women felt that because so many of their sons were dying, they should be more involved.
She called on those who underwent medical male circumcision (MCC) not to be isolated. It is common in the Eastern Cape for boys who have undergone MMC to be treated as outcasts in their villages and stigmatised as lesser men.
“As women we carry these children for nine months and raise them from zero to 18 years only to hand them over to men for a couple of days. The next thing they are dead,” she said.
“We are not saying we want to go into initiation schools, but we want to be told what is happening to our children while they are there. I must be informed immediately if my son is not coping, has complications, and when he has died. I must not be informed weeks later when they bring him home in a wheelbarrow saying he did not make it.”
Bukiwe Fanta, chairperson of the standing committee on women’s caucus at the Eastern Cape provincial legislature, said they were gravely concerned about the death toll and the rise in the number of underage initiates.
“The lack of involvement of women and the deliberate sidelining of women will always result in these crises,” she said.
“Women and mothers will always ensure that no underage child of their own goes to initiation school, undergoes illegal circumcision, goes to initiation school without medication if he has a medical condition, is starved, tortured and ultimately killed. A woman would have intervened to avert all of the above from ever taking place.”
Fanta questioned the secrecy surrounding the tradition and called for more openness.
But Nkosi Mwelo Nonkonyana, chairperson of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders, said the call for women to be more involved was an “overreaction”.
“It is the responsibility of circumcised men only to look after initiates when they are in initiation schools. It is an overreaction that now they want to take over because men have failed,” he said.
Nonkonyana instead blamed some of the problems of traditional initiation on MMC which, he said, “is causing problems in this rite because these boys who undergo it after they are ridiculed and stigmatised by other boys then they go to the mountain to undergo traditional circumcision which creates all sorts of problems and complications”.
“MMC is a disaster in the Eastern Cape and should not be applicable. MMC is a no-no as far as we are concerned,” he said.
He said as much as they accept the criticism that women carry their children for nine months only to lose them in the care of men in eight days at initiation schools, he still believed women played a secondary role.
Provincial cooperative governance and traditional affairs spokesperson Mamkeli Ngam agreed that women should be more involved, especially in reporting their missing underage sons, so that action would be taken against perpetrators.
Ngam said 27 traditional surgeons and nurses were arrested this season and they would be seeking harsh sentences for them. He said most initiates died as a result of dehydration, while others died from assault.