SOME women students at Wits are being pressured by families to attend initiation school, forcing them to choose between their education and their culture—and possible “genital alteration”.
Two female students from Wits, one in her first year, the other in second, said they faced judgement and scorn from their families for choosing to stay at university rather than attend a “compulsory” initiation school in Venda. Both students asked not to be named for fear of being treated differently by their peers.
All initiation schools involve compulsory tests of virginity, during which elderly “gogos” look or insert fingers into the young women’s vaginas to determine if the hymen has been broken. Many also involve forms of “genital alteration” to make intercourse more pleasurable
The first-year student, currently studying politics, said her aunt accused her of not being a virgin and of engaging in premarital sex. She said her current “situation” was the main reason behind her reluctance, since these schools included a compulsory virginity test.
“They [the family] have accused me of trying to embarrass them. I’ve been told I will be a bad wife, because I am too headstrong,”
Both women said their families disapproved of their using their studies to avoid attending the school. Both were subjected to ridicule from their peers at home, as they were seen as “inadequate”.
“Sometimes I dread going to the village,” said one. “Some of the girls call us trees, just growing without discipline.”
She said the reason behind her reluctance to go to an initiation school is that she did not want to be “violated” with possible genital alteration.
Mercy Manci, a traditional healer and community activist from the Eastern Cape, said she knew of several initiation schools in
“These schools vary from tribe to tribe. Some include training on how to please your husband both sexually and mentally,” she said. “They teach a woman how to learn her place.”
Different forms of genital alteration were practised in different schools. “There is a practice where females are supposed to tug on the inner labia repeatedly until it stretches to a certain length and there is another where they are to squeeze and slice the clitoris in the middle. This ensures that the male genitalia does not slip out during sex and that the intercourse
However, not all initiation schools practised genital alteration, Manci said. The initiation can last anywhere from seven days to two weeks, starting with a compulsory virginity test. If a girl was found to be “whole” [a virgin] the old women would ululate, but if a girl was found to be “damaged”, the old women would sound their disapproval loudly.
The virginity test was then followed by teachings on behaviour in male company, reproductive health, sexuality and how to run a household. The women had to avoid certain foods during initiation since these were believed to arouse them. They had to eat traditional foods like umnqusho (samp) and sweet potatoes to “strengthen her endurance and core”.
During initiation, girls dressed in a certain way and painted their faces with clay. This signalled their unity with the ground and their ancestors. Each returned to her family for a graduation ceremony, after which they were seen as “ripe” and traditionally ready for marriage.
Female initiation schools are still a common part of the compulsory rite of passage into womanhood – some operating secretly and others publicly. They are meant to equip young women with “all that is needed in the journey to becoming a ‘good wife’.”
Tendani Makwarera, a Venda woman who once attended an initiation school, told Wits Vuvuzela the classes were designed to help a girl through the transition to womanhood and taught them how to behave in a marriage.
“I had to go when I was sixteen and it was compulsory. They told me that if I don’t go then I won’t know how to handle my man.”
She explained that she actually enjoyed the process, which lasted two weeks.
“When I look at the woman of today, they don’t have a long heart [endurance], which is why there are more divorces. When you look at the women who went there you see that they don’t divorce at all.”
Since she was the only girl in the family, she appreciated the lessons as she had no one else to teach her. She did agree that, initially, she was afraid of the older women who taught them since these women were said to do “funny things to you”.
Prof Robert Thornton teaches a course on ‘Sex, Culture and Society’ at Wits, which covers the area of Female Genital Modification, also referred to as Female Genital Mutilation, (FGM).
“Why it [initiation] raises so many questions is because it somehow opposes the popular, scientific culture that says that sex is somehow natural rather than cultural,” he said. “In fact in reality, we do have to learn how to do sex.
We have to learn how to fulfil those roles, which is done one way or another; either formally by the gogos and the rituals or fumbling about in the dark.”
He said the aim of these rituals was to legitimate the initiation, to give knowledge and validate the process of becoming a woman. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), FGM procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of new-born deaths.
According to the WHO website: “FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.
“It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women.”