Can Sikenge initiators lead revolution for young women? (Sikenge is female initiation rite in Western Province, Zambia)


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Initiation rites that have taken place for thousands of years in Zambia are being radically modernized, as traditional initiators concentrate on cooking and etiquette skills rather than sexual training.

The Sikenge ceremony is typical to the Western province region of Zambia. During the ceremony, female Chilombola initiators, traditionally teach sex skills to girls as young as 12. During the initiation ceremonies as a transition from childhood to adulthood, some aspects of these traditional ceremonies such as sex education given to the initiates are thought to have a negative impact on the education of girls. The three month ritual is rarely talked about in Zambia, and all girls who undergo the initiation rite are sworn to secrecy about their experience.

Sibeso 40 is a Chilombola in Kannde in Mongu district, Western province of Zambia, who wishes not to remain anonymous says: “The initiation ceremonies teach the girls how to handle a man in the bedroom. Everything, how to clean, how to shave, as long as they reach puberty, at 11 or 12 years, a girl is taken in an initiation ceremony and taught all of these things.”

In the past, once the girls have completed their three month training, they have been traditionally sent to be ‘tested’ by an older man in the community. “When they’re through with the initiation, they’re given a man to test whether they can handle him,” says Sibeso.

“They choose a man from within the community, who tests to find out whether the girl has been properly trained. If not she goes back. I met a tester last week who confessed that he has tested 12 girls and out of the 12, he sent one back to the initiators because she knew nothing.”

One in seven people in Zambia is HIV positive (UN, 2010) and life expectancy has fallen to just 49 years because of the disease. The latest demographic report indicates that the HIV prevalence rate for Western Province has risen from 15 to 16 percent, making it the second highest after Lusaka Province whose prevalence rate stands at 16.1 percent. Many of the testers do not use a condom.

She adds: “If you look at rural communities of Mongu district, it is one of the least developed, illiteracy is still high and women are very illiterate. The contributing factor is the initiation ceremony because not many girls reach secondary level. After the ceremony they test and get pregnant – either from the test or because they want to carry on and practise their new skills - then drop out of school.”

Mubiana 40, is one of the Sikenge initiators to work with Maboshe Memorial Centre (MMC). Mubiana says that while tradition is important, the ceremony must be changed because, once they know the skills, girls want to have sex early – and are often lured into having sex, resulting in early pregnancy or marriage.

Mubiana says: “Our initiation ceremony is good because it is a tradition given to us by our ancestors, but there are disadvantages. Once the girls are taught sexual skills, they want to try them out, so they get pregnant really quickly.”

“Often, young girls aren’t scared of men, even older men, because they say they know how to handle them. After the ceremonies, girls drop out of school because of what they been taught - all their focus is on sex and marriage. Boys prey on the girls who have been initiated, so they are tempted into having sex.”

Mubiana and her fellow initiators hope to change the Sikenge ceremony they perform, to focus on simple health messages, how to cope with periods, keeping a clean house and respecting your parents. All sexual content has been taken out.

Initiator Nasilele, 41, has been initiating girls for years in Kembi village – but says the arrival of Maboshe Memorial Centre (MMC) will change her attitude completely.

As girls, Nasilele says her and her peers sensed that they were being taught things that they were too young to know – but were helpless in the face of tradition.

Nasilele says: “Before Maboshe Memorial Centre (MMC) came in, we used to teach girls between 12 and 15 everything to do with sex; how to handle a man in the bedroom, how to shave him, clean him after sex, dancing to please a man during sex and how to serve a man.

The Maboshe Memorial Centre (MMC) Executive Director Patrick Maboshe said we have a lot to talk about with the initiators. We are trying as the child rights organization to change the curricular; we hope to train a lot of initiators and try to remove what is bad for a girl child. So that these other things they are taught at the right age, when they are taken for marriages. We hope to get the message across loud and clear.”

Once funded the project will help the Chilombola to change the curriculum of the Sikenge so that whatever the Chilombola teach, it does not harm young girls, this will help to spread the message on how good it is to send girls to school. I have noticed that a lot of girls will no longer get pregnant and go on to secondary school because of the change in initiation ceremonies once spread.

Patrick hope to spread the message through activities include drama group awareness sessions, with actors portraying messages about good menstrual hygiene management (MHM), HIV/AIDS, contraception and the importance of education.

This scenario calls for the incorporation of some cultural practices in the fight against the pandemic. The performances will have various topics around reproductive health, like HIV/AIDS, early marriages, STIs, unwanted pregnancies, periods, (good menstrual hygiene management (MHM), pre-marital sex and reproductive health for young people which is a bigger problem, as is early marriage said Patrick.

Patrick said his organisation the Maboshe Memorial Centre (MMC) will work with the Chilombola, community chiefs and elders to phase out this practice completely. “This is what, as Maboshe Memorial Centre (MMC), we are trying to stop, through education programmes, information sharing, communication, these things will reducing now. Such practices will be phased out.

We hope to train initiators to remove the sexual content,” says Patrick, “so that young women are only taught these things when they are ready for marriage. In the past, people never used to come out in the open about this issue. Girls were seen as there to bring income to the home - their futures were early marriage, early pregnancy. Now they’re being given the same opportunities as boys and the percentage of girls enrolling at school is growing.”

Patrick said Chilombola will now be passionately advocating for girls to be initiated only when they are ready for marriage. The two week Sikenge ceremonies will have to focus on simple HIV/AIDS health messages, (good menstrual hygiene management (MHM) how to cope with periods, keeping a clean house and respecting parents. They can also be scheduled for the school holidays, so that girls do not miss out on lessons.

The results indicated that traditional initiation ceremonies affected the education of girls in terms of school attendance, pupils’ behavior, and pupils’ participation in class, early pregnancies and marriages, dropouts, as well as HIV/AIDS. The Chilombola once trained by Maboshe Memorial Centre (MMC) will even get the police involved if a girl is taken out of school to be initiated says Patrick

Patrick said we hope to work on raising awareness among parents and elders. They should know that it will be reported to the traditional leader if they force girls to go for an initiation, and we can even get the police involved to get the girl back in school. Parents and elders should wait for the girls to finish school and only put them through the ceremony when they are ready to get married. This is the ideal way to update our tradition.”

The key recommendations were that parents should ensure that girls do not miss classes because of initiation ceremonies and should be initiated during school holidays. It was also recommended that parents need to be encouraged to allow their children to speak in class immediately after initiation and to stop some practices that would negatively affect the behavior of the initiates and also promote good menstrual hygiene management (MHM), ending culture and traditional practices, inadequate accurate health information, and poverty-related conditions. The girls faced menstruation-related inconveniences, bullying and humiliation, stress, infections, poor school attendance and performance, and dropped out of school said Patrick.

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Re: Can Sikenge initiators lead revolution for young women? (Sikenge is female initiation rite in Western Province, Zambia)

Dear Patrick,

I had never heard of Sikenge before but read your post with great interest. I think it takes guts to talk so openly about such a taboo and secretive and potentially controversial topic. I had a quick Google search and found some articles on this topic, e.g. this one:

The sikenge female initiation rite as a means of combatting HIV/AIDS
This chapter describes and analyzes a female initiation rite called sikenge that is practiced by the Lozi-speaking people of Western Province, Zambia in sub-Saharan Africa. Initiation rites are not usually perceived as a channel of disseminating HIV and AIDS information because most health campaigns in Zambia as well as the whole of sub-Saharan Africa promote Western biomedicine (see Breidlid’s chapter in this book) and are usually conducted using modern means of communication such as television, radio, internet, and many other channels.

As a moderator, I asked myself the question if your post should be allowed on this forum as it deviates a bit from the sanitation topic. But in my opinion it is alright to have it here because I see some relevance to show us the broader issues that young women may have to go through beyond the lack of toilets or lack of menstrual hygiene management. So thank you for raising this topic here.

If others disagree with my assessment, please send me a direct message or post in this thread.

I can imagine it being such a taboo topic that there are probably few other forums where you could bring this up. Actually another one might be the HIFA Dgroup ( ); they recently had a very interesting discussion on ""Everyone is having sex" – sexual education is key"

There have been some excellent, honest and controversial posts in that discussion. You can see them at this link: , although I think the link will only let you view the posts if you get a login to Dgroups (unlike this forum where reading is open). But if you are into that topic I think it's well worth getting yourself a login to HIFA Dgroup.

I found many of the posts very interesting and some have completely opposite points of views. Here are some examples::

In the name of Africa particularities and specificities, some practices have gone un-addressed for generation with the dramatic consequences that we see today. I disagree that it may not be easy to talk about sex in some African languages, what makes the talk difficult is our own perception and views of sex. We should not perpetuate that cycle. Looking at African culture and past, at least in the culture where I come from, "sex" education has existed, in one form or the other; this traditional education to manhood or womanhood was unfortunately crushed by Christianity in its work to purify African mind from its beastly approach to the things of the flesh.
The way to deal with this critical health issue will be, first to accept it as what it is and, second, to educate young girls and boys - through formal education and through, most importantly, the secured comfort of families - if not, then the internet and peers will be in charge of that education. Do we want that?

Best regards
Raoul Kamadjeu
Founder and Managing Editor, The Pan African Medical Journal

Arguing the opposite was Charles:

Dear Raoul,

I like your feedback. It is certainly not a good idea to let our children learn about sex from peers and the internet. We also don't want our children to be sexually abused by teachers in formal schools as a "practical aspect of sex education". In Zimbabwe there is an increase in cases of the girl child being sexually abused by teachers. We don't know whether this is due to formalization of sex education or not.

While most formal subjects have practical sessions, I doubt if we would want sexual education to have a practical component in schools. There are still opportunities to retain and perpetuate positive aspects of local education about manhood and womanhood in some African family institutions. Should we hand over such a complicated and values-informed subject to formal education systems where curricular is generic as if parents and communities no longer exist? If you try to label all body parts using vernacular languages you will see what I mean when I say it might be very disgusting to deliver sex education through local languages. Unless we are talking about providing superficial knowledge.


Charles Dhewa
Chief Executive Officer
Knowledge Transfer Africa (KTA)
Harare City Council Community Services Building,
Mbare Agriculture Market
Harare, Zimbabwe

And this one from Lucie arguing in the other direction again:

Dear colleagues

I confess to not being an expert in the field of reproductive health but rather an expert by experience, being the mother of four children. Whilst there will always be cultural and religious differences about the love and relationships aspects of sex, the biological basics are the same. At a minimum, I think that we should be teaching our children what their bodies can do and enabling them to understand the feelings and experiences they might have. This could be done well in school. The next layer of education will be guided by the society in which the education is taking place - but it has to be realistic. Often older and younger generations live in very different societies to each other and we must listen to young people and their 'near-to-peers', attempting to understand their experiences, which might be alien to our own. We need to be mindful of the fact that 'the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there' (L P Hartley, 1953) and not assume that we understand the world of young people any more than we understand the world of our colleagues and friends from other countries. It might be that educators are more capable than us parents to have difficult conversations about sex in a way that understands that experiences are different depending on contextual factors.

For my own children, I have spoken openly to them about sex from as early as they started to ask questions. I have talked to them about relationships and responsibilities and about consent. I hope that this little film about consent, using the analogy of a cup of tea, might be useful or at least amusing to some colleagues:

With best wishes to all

Dr Lucie Byrne-Davis PhD CPsychol PFHEA
Health Psychologist & Senior Lecturer
Division of Medical Education | School of Medical Sciences | Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health
The University of Manchester

That video to explain consent for sex by using drinking tea together as an example is brilliant.

Actually I will need to ask Neil if it's OK that I have copied those posts here into the open. I may need to remove the author names, or even the posts, or ask those authors first as they originally posted it in a closed group. I will check.
Edit on 11 Oct 2018: I checked with those authors and they didn't object.

Dr. Elisabeth von Muench
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