There is an overlap between culture and infringement of human rights. Some cultural practices that are passed down from generation to generation have managed to dodge country laws and policies. Observers of such cultural behaviours have been known to escape arraignment by laws in countries. Albeit supreme laws of the land are said to be the last rank, culture somehow has risen above the law. For example, in Zimbabwe the Shangaan and the Tonga communities have their cultures that the country and its laws are aware of, and these are practiced within their society. Even if they are known to breach laws they do not carry a penalty. However, some of the cultural practices are unsafe, they prejudice women and violate their rights as human beings, especially young women and girls. Many times these have promoted the spread of STI and HIV. Practices such as initiation of girl children, virginity testing and widow inheritance are some of the key drivers of HIV and gender based violence.
In the Shangaan community in Zimbabwe, girls at the age of 13 years are removed from school for 3 months and sent to the initiation camps where they are taught and inducted into adulthood (womanhood). After the 3 months of intense training, the girls are said to be ready to ’face life’ and they are in a marriageable state. The end of training is marked by graduation ceremony as the girls graduate into the community. This norm has been passed down from generation immemorial and girls and their mothers have to comply or else they are dishonored by the community. This practice infringes, negates and violates the girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights. According to SEVACA, 10 years ago, after initiation girls will simple drop out of school and get married. From all the girls initiated, 0% would return to class, hence the recorded low literacy level among the girl children in Shangaan-Sengwe communities.
SEVACA embarked on awareness campaigns against early marriages and emphasizing on the importance of education for girl children. They also lobbied for the reduction of the initiation period for girl children so that they are not absent from school for 3 months. The lobby also included, requesting the initiation schools to be conducted during the school holiday, so that girls do not miss out from school. The lobby was so much of a success and the initiation has been reduced to I month and during first term school holiday. As a positive outcome, as at now, almost 50% of girls return to school after initiation compared to the 0% that was being recorded 5 years ago. The awareness campaigns are now a joint venture between stakeholders that work with human rights and law enforcement agents, that is, the Ministry of Gender and Women Affairs, Ministry of Youth, Non-Governmental Organisations representing Women, Zimbabwe Republic Police (the Victim Friendly Unit) among others. The local leaedership is also very involved and there is community ownership and they are willng to change their unsafe practices.
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