Virginity testing, genital mutilation - Western Cape raises questions on Initiation Bill

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A Xhosa initiate walks through the bush during a traditional initiation process.
A Xhosa initiate walks through the bush during a traditional initiation process.
Mujahid Safodien / AFP
  • The Western Cape government has raised concerns over some aspects of a Bill on customary initiations and virginity testing.  
  • It does not cover possible genital mutilation, protection of adult initiates, nor does it explain who sees the results of proposed medical tests before going for initiation or cross-border validity of these tests.  
  • An Nguni chief pointed out that traditional leaders were not recognised in the province, so could be excluded from official decisions on it. 

Questions were raised in the Western Cape legislature on Tuesday over the proposed Customary Initiation Bill which appeared to clear guidelines on what constituted harm and virginity testing.

Clara Williams, a legal advisor in the premier's office, submitted that the Bill spoke only of children regarding the use of a surgical instrument only once, but did not mention adults. 

She said it was also contradictory regarding the ages of initiates in the Bill, stating one category as 16 to 18 years of age, and then speaking generally about initiates who had attended secondary school. 

She also noted that it did not cover how consent would be obtained for people with disabilities, nor explained how the required proposed pre-initiation screening medical records would be kept confidential.

She said the Bill lacked specifics on what constituted genital mutilation and virginity testing. 

According to Williams, parts of the Bill contradicted the Children's Act regarding confidentiality, and so needed to be brought in line with it, and it was not clear on whether an initiate could cross borders with a medical clearance certificate from another province.

The Bill also did not state what to do if a potential initiate was disabled to the point of not being able to give consent.  

Schools

She said the Bill must also make it clear that initiation schools should be in places easily accessible to emergency services.

It also did not take into account the different initiation practices of the Khoi San leaders or communities that conducted different types of initiations.

Nguni Chief Lungelo Nokwaza proposed an amendment to include two representatives from the House of Traditional Leaders on the Western Cape's initiation co-ordinating committees since no traditional leadership was recognised in the province yet. He said the Western Cape government should also enact cultural initiation legislation. 

READ | Coronavirus: Contralesa suspends winter initiation schools season

"The two members must be persons who have undergone cultural initiation with unquestionable authority and clout to speak on behalf of custodians of cultural initiations in the Western Cape," he proposed.  

The Bill was intended to regulate initiation practices and to establish a National Initiation Oversight Committee (NIOC), among other goals. 

It hoped to address past abuses and unregulated initiation schools.

It defined female and male circumcision - the removal of a female child's clitoris, or the surgical removal of a male child's foreskin.

Some of the proposals in the Bill included:

An initiation practitioner such as a surgeon or caregiver must be at least 40-years-old, had undergone initiation themselves; and had a proven record of overseeing five successful initiation sessions; 

Registered sex offenders or people deemed legally unsuitable to not work with children cannot be part of initiation sessions;

A senior member of the National Prosecuting Authority and the SA Police Service must be included on the National Initiation Oversight Committee; 

Part of SAPS' role would include investigating whether initiates had been abducted or kidnapped;

The committee must have at least three women on it and each province must establish a Provincial Initiation Coordination Committee;

A hotline to report abuse to the NIOC must also be established; and

Nobody can use alcohol unless it was part of a sacrament and no drugs as stated in the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act can be used or possessed.

The Bill stated that initiation was completely voluntary.

Virginity testing cannot be conducted on females younger than 16 and when done voluntarily, must be in line with the Children's Act which meant with the girl's consent and with counselling. 

Male initiates under 16 were to be prohibited from attending initiation school.

Female circumcision and female genital mutilation were strictly prohibited. 

Offenders could face up to 15 years in jail for running an illegal initiation school or accepting an initiate without the clearance required to have been obtained 21 days before the school started.

Forging a consent form meant up to 10 years in prison and an unregistered surgeon faced prison of up to five years. Not arranging necessary medical intervention for an initiate could lead to a three year prison sentence.

Read the Bill here.

Comments can be sent to the Western Cape government by 28 September at wmatthews@wcpp.gov.za or as a WhatsApp voice note on 076 633 3133.

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