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Of cultural practices, women rights, hygiene


Just when I thought, I had done justice to the circumcision-prevents-HIV fable, a colleague alerted me of a story entitled Women: The unsung circumcision heroines .

I am opposed to circumcision as an HIV prevention method, but there is more money and power driving it and sadly it is legitimising unsafe practices.

Just before I read the story, she was fuming in indignation and posed a very salient question: “Are the Ministry of Health and child welfare, UNPA, UNAids, PSI and WHO really undertaking these kinds of circumcision ceremonies in the bush?”

At first, I was mystified at the sight of a modern and liberal lady infuriated by a headline which I thought immortalised and glamorised women’s role to this myth, the so-called first-line-of-defence-to-HIV traditional practice. That reaction alone was cogent enough to send me reading the story.

I must say, I have always admired the writer for her wordsmith and literary melodrama. In this story, it was like reading one from the Feso, Jekanyika or Kutonhodzwa kwaCharauka.

She engrosses the reader on a seemingly intimate journey into the subtle realms of the traditional circumcision ceremony in the Masivamele Chieftainship in Chiredzi, to explore the heroics of a proud woman.

The setting is an intricate imbroglio of a kitchen, children, play centre, and a temporary camp for women including breastfeeding mothers.

One woman quoted in the story unfolds the valour of women by explaining, with pride, their roles and responsibilities ascribed to them by culture and tradition.

One would be mistaken to think it’s in the Stone era when women were seen as ritual slaves only there to gratify men’s lustful egos.

“As per our culture, we remove our braas, blouses or tops and wrap cloths around our waists to cover our navels once we finish cooking. We leave our breasts uncovered and take the food to where the men would be,” said Mrs Masote.

Perhaps the writer didn’t see anything wrong with this presentation of almost naked women to these voyeurs who derive their power from archaic cultural practices.

Mrs Masote adds: “If your food is not well-cooked, the go-betweens (the same men) will tell you not to repeat the same mistake or fine you a chicken or goat depending on the seriousness of the offence.”

Does this culture require the same of men, when women go for their own rituals? God knows what happens in these bushes.

While I am an ardent enthusiast of culture, I find it difficult to reconcile if culture demeans and violates other people’s rights and dignity.

I can only guess that the nudity is meant to arouse the men undergoing and facilitating circumcision, exposing women to the risk of rape under the guise of culture.

In addition, the presence of young children in these harsh and unsafe living conditions surely compromises their rights and welfare.

Surprisingly, we are told that this is a “joint circumcision programme between the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, UNFPA, the National Aids Council, UNAids, PSI and the World Health Organisation.” One wonders if the government and these agencies have surely endorsed this gathering under these conditions.

The story further raises a number of salient questions. The woman quoted in the story says there are no toilets and they use the bush to relieve themselves. The water they use “is not safe and we are appealing to the government and its partners in the NGO sector to provide clean water and sanitation facilities.”

It seems our politics has blinkered us to see lawlessness only in political activism, but this is a typical case of lawlessness, a clear breach of the Public Health Act.

The Act makes it obligatory to have adequate and proper water and sanitary facilities prior to the commencement of such gatherings.

Still the question remains: Was this traditional circumcision exercise part of the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, UNFPA, the National Aids Council, UNAids, PSI and the World Health Organisation programme as stated in the story?

Of course, as expected the writer’s story ends at “go-betweens”, and we can only guess that beyond the go-betweens, there is a group of men undergoing a traditional circumcision ritual for a period of four weeks without a toilet and clean water.

We can also just imagine that the cutting of the foreskin is being done by professionals approved by health authorities and perhaps the same agencies listed in the story.

But it is hard to imagine how circumcision can take place in such an unhygienic condition.

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