Lilongwe — The culture of silence and secrecy surround-ing some traditional practices could make the fight against the HIV epidemic more difficult.
Often these traditional practices are carried out on young people who are at the age of puberty, and the initiation is intended to prepare them for adulthood.
When those who have been initiated are asked what happens at the initiation ceremonies, the reply is often that the young people are taught how to take care of themselves, how to show respect for elders, obtain good manners as well as how to take care of the family.
To a large extent this is true, but some of the practices carried out during the initiations are not openly discussed with just anyone and are generally kept as a closely guarded secret.
In order to make sure that young people who are not ready for initiation and others who have not gone through the initiation ceremonies are unable to know what goes on during the initiations, the young initiates are removed from their homes and taken to a place prepared for the occasion outside the village, under the instruction and watchful eye of a counselor.
It has been reported that initiation ceremonies for girls are more complex and detailed than for boys. Initiation ceremonies for girls are also more widespread.
Research carried out by the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) has revealed that in some parts of the southern region Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is very quietly happening.
Shrouded in secrecy, the practice continues to take place and exposes girls to HIV infection without any challenge because no one will talk about it.
Girls in some parts of Mulanje in the Southern Region have been undergoing FGM during initiation with the practice going almost unnoticed because of the secrecy surrounding the practice.
The practice, that involves the pinching off of the tip (clitoris) of the girl's private parts, is conducted during the ceremony by the Namkungwi (elderly woman counselor and instructor).
Using her fingernails to remove the organ, the part is pinch and severed by the namkungwi under conditions that are not sterile or hygienic.
Using a basin of water to wash her hands after each removal, she moves from one girl to the next, exposing the girls to different kinds of infections, including HIV.
Apart from the pain and risk of chronic infection that can lead to infertility, a girl can bled profusely and suffer server anemia.
The risk of HIV infection can be high during the time when the young girls are bleeding and wounds are exposed. Some of the girls, although young, are already sexually active. Working from one girl to the next in the way it is done could spread HIV infection should any one of them have contracted the virus.
The possibility of a young girls being HIV positive because of Mother to Child Transmission (MTCT) could also lead to other initiates being exposed.
There is also the risk of infection being passed on to the girls if the namkungwi herself is infected with HIV and her bodily fluids which can carry the virus comes into contact with her hand and, inadvertently to the girls wounds during this time.
Speaking about the practice to some women around the Thyolo and Mulanji areas, it seems obvious that FGM is practiced at some initiation ceremonies although they will not say if it is practiced in their own village.
Nankhoma says she is aware of the practice, but it does not happen to the girls that go for initiation in her village: "I hear that it is being practiced by some people in some other villages but that does not happen where I live," she says.
Belita has also heard about the practice, but she too says it does not happen in her village. "We hear that the namkungwi chosen to carry out the cutting will grow her nails on her forefinger and thumb in anticipation of the work she is to do." Asked if she knows any namkungwi who does this kind of initiation, Bettie responds: "No I don't know it's a very well kept secret among the namkungwi and nobody asks or knows them unless you become one of them through another kind of initiation." Every one spoken to acknowledge that they are aware of the practice but deny that they or anyone they know is involved in the practice.
The secrecy and silence surrounding the FGM makes it very difficult to talk to those actually involved.
The result is that people have come to believe that FGM is not that widely practiced in this country.
The fact is that, even if it is only a few people who practice FGM, the risk of HIV infection cannot be overlooked and the challenges faced to stop the epidemic could be increased if the practice remains underground and those carrying it out not informed about the dangers of spreading HIV and their contribution to it.