Illegal circumcision’s schools in South Africa have left 35 boys dead in just two weeks in botched operations.
All the deaths are in the Eastern Cape, one of South Africa’a poorest provinces where boys are still sent into secret schools in the bush for circumcisions to mark their passage to manhood. Most initiations are either done in June-July or November-December.
Reports say of the 35 initiates who have died two were brothers and scores of victims of botched circumcisions are being treated in hospitals in the Eastern Cape. A few of them risk having their entire genitalia removed to save them. South Africa’s health ministry said so far 110 initiates have been rescued and closed 50 initiation schools as the important rite of passage, usually conducted in secluded and remote areas, leads to more injuries and deaths.
In the Limpopo province, the often disastrous initiation rites led the local government, in 1996, to put a legislation in place to govern the conduct of the province’s more than 200 initiation schools, but cultural taboos that prevent initiates from talking about their experiences, and the involvement of local officials in running the schools has made the law difficult to enforce.
The province recorded 5 deaths in 2007 and another 5 in 2008 among young boys between the June and July while attending initiation schools.
Last year alone, 91 initiates died and hundreds were hospitalised in the Eastern province.
Initiates often ‘go to the bush’, as the initiation rites are referred to, during the winter school holidays. After circumcisions, the initiates are discouraged from drinking water as urinating could be painful and lead to infections. This causes very high sodium and potassium levels in the body, compounding the problems caused by general dehydration.
Boys die every year from complications from botched circumcisions by ill-trained traditional surgeons in rural areas. Nonetheless, they still flock to initiation schools in the bush, because the faster and less painful medical method in hospital can result in a lifetime of social rejection.
And although traditional surgeons have to be registered with the department of health after undergoing training, permits for initiation schools to operate legally are issued by local chiefs, with local police forces expressing their reluctance to get involved in what they describe as a “traditional issue”.
In contrast, no deaths have been recorded in Zimbabwe since the start of the government free circumcision programme in 2009. About 5 000 men have gone under the knife and the programme aims at covering at least three million men, about 80 percent of Zimbabwe’s young men. The programme’s target is the country’s military, where the pandemic has wrecked havoc.