January 20, 2007 / 5:29 PM / 13 years ago

School turns girls into wives for South Africa's Ndebele

MATHYS ZYN LOOP, South Africa (Reuters) - Four weeks of “house arrest” doing laundry, scrubbing floors and preparing meals would be a form of punishment for most teenage girls.

Young Ndebele females enter the front yard of a family home to perform a dance, the final step in a rite of passage that brings them from childhood to womanhood in Mpumalanga,South Africa August 15, 2006. Only a handful of groups in South Africa still operate female initiation schools -- the rite is more commonly reserved for males, and is far more brutal, involving weeks of tough survival in the wilderness and circumcision. REUTERS/Sarah McGregor

But in one tribal stronghold of South Africa, it is accepted by the Ndebele people as the final step of a custom that ushers virgin girls from the innocence of childhood into a new life as wives and mothers.

Only a handful of groups in South Africa still operate female initiation schools — the rite is more commonly reserved for males, and is far more brutal, involving weeks of tough survival in the wilderness and circumcision.

Experts say none of the local groups are known to perform female genital mutilation, an ancient practice that prevails in parts of Africa. Meant to promote chastity, human rights groups say it is oppressive and a health risk.

Instead, when it comes to female empowerment in the South African context, some experts say initiation schools can help to uplift women, teach good manners and nurture respect.

“It is the training where you prepare young women to what the world is all about and how to take responsibilities,” said Jane Mufamadi, a researcher with Freedom Park Trust, a presidential legacy project designed to preserve the heritage of South Africans.

“It instils a sense of pride in your culture and gives basic survival skills.”

CRASH COURSE IN WOMANHOOD

Step one of the ritual is for parents to pick a date shortly after their daughter hits puberty when she is ordered to stay at home for a month to sweat over the stove and wash laundry.

The point of the exercise is to instil the fastidious work ethic of a homemaker.

During that time, elders lead workshops and role-playing exercises with a lesson plan that centres on moral values.

Community leaders educate girls on how to be intimate with boys — cuddling and fondling is permitted — but they adamantly promote sexual abstinence until marriage.

“They are taught skills and techniques of how to play with boys without being penetrated. It encourages women not to be deflowered before they are married,” said Mufamadi.

“It teaches self-control and how (women can) take charge of their bodies.”

The coming of age is completed with a party attended by family and friends who gather over a weekend to feast on an animal slaughtered for the occasion, and add the finishing touches to costumes for a closing performance.

The final event sees female graduates — topless and wearing only colourful beaded hoops stacked on their arms, legs and neck, and stiff board aprons around their waists — hand out small tokens of candies and matchboxes, and perform a dance.

SHOWTIME

In the rugged village of Mathys Zyn Loop, about 100 kilometres (62 miles) northeast of Pretoria, the practice is thriving even in an era when Western innovations often seem to trump traditional values.

On a recent Saturday, seven young ladies who were being ushered into womanhood at the same time sat bare-breasted on a chequered blanket along the dusty roadside, giggling into cellphones and looking a little bored.

By late afternoon, it was time to unpack suitcases stuffed with handmade attire, and fuss in front of a credit-card sized mirror over eyeshadow and hairstyles.

At showtime, the girls paraded into the front yard of a small family home, forming a semi-circle before their audience of about 60 people.

To the beat of clapping, chanting and tooting whistles, each female took a turn to shuffle forward and the crowd responded with delighted hoots and hollers.

“It’s similar to the way you would throw a 21st birthday party,” said Lindy Masombuka, 21. “When I finish here I’m a woman. If a guy wants to marry me he can.”

Young women here say they are not battling the rite of passage that strongly reinforces gender roles.

Amelia Skosana, 15, said she turns away from some of her parents’ beliefs, but not the initiation ceremony.

“I don’t mind because it’s part of my culture,” she said. “I looked forward to it.”

An extra bonus for the girls are gifts — including bedroom suites and fashionable clothing.

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