As a guest of Rhodes University’s Faculty of Law, Judge of Appeal Nambitha Dambuza presented a public lecture on women’s parental rights in ulwaluko (circumcision) on 24 April.
The Moot Room at Rhodes was filled to capacity with members of the public ready to listen to what the law says about one of the most topical issues in the country. The custom of ulwaluko has come under scrutiny in recent years due to the number of initiates who die every year or never make it home after initiation season, and because boys as young as eight are forcefully taken to illegal initiation schools.
In the lecture, Dambuza said that the recently tabled Customary Initiation Bill is an attempt to regulate initiation schools and to give women a more active role in the custom. “In its preamble, the Bill recognises the right to life, affirms the right to cultural practices and emphasises the protection of children from maltreatment, neglect, abuse and degradation,” she explained. The Bill proposes that the National and Provincial Initiation Committees play a compliance enforcement role once the Bill has been passed into law. The Provincial Committee in particular will be tasked with coordinating and monitoring the activities and practices taking place at initiation schools, as well as keeping track of provincial initiation schools and their initiates. The Provincial Committee will also have the responsibility of investigating alleged abuse cases made against initiation practices and schools.
In an attempt to do away with illegal initiation schools, the new Bill states that any circumcision performed without registration under Traditional Health Practitioners Act will be a criminal offence. The punishment is a fine and/or a prison sentence of up to five years.
To make women more proactive in the transformation of the custom, the Bill insists that at least two members of the National Initiation Committee must be women. Furthermore, women are obligated to be more involved in safeguarding the wellbeing of their children while they are in initiation school, as they have the right to tend to them when ill. Under Section 22 of the Bill, parents are required to obtain a medical certificate for all prospective initiates to prove there are no physical or psychological conditions that might result in complications either during or after initiation.
Dambuza argues that to retain the custom of ulwaluko, changes that are in line with the principles of the Constitution need to be made. “The custom is not static, it must change, and that change will not happen if women take a backseat,” she concluded.