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Last Updated: Sunday, 2 July 2006, 23:33 GMT 00:33 UK
Are rites of passage out of step?
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News

A girl undergoes female circumcision in Somalia
Circumcision is viewed as an initiation rite in some cultures
Initiation rites are a vital step in the transition to adult life in many cultures around the world.

Some involve ritual circumcision, symbolic cuts to the body or tests of endurance, others a period of reflection and isolation.

Anthropologists have studied with fascination the coming-of-age ceremonies of tribes and communities in far-flung places.

But rituals also exist in Western societies, such as those imposed on many young people entering the military or colleges in the US - which, if abusive, are known as "hazing" and have caused deaths.

So how do these rites of passage fit in with modern Western ideas about child abuse and human rights?

Botched operations

The death of a South African teenager during initiation rituals - the ninth such fatality this year - has heightened concerns about their safety.

The boy - a member of the Xhosa-speaking ethnic group, whose initiation process involves a period spent living in the bush, followed by circumcision - died of starvation after three weeks in the mountains.

If you are not circumcised you are just not accepted as a fully fledged member of adult society
Professor Peter Mtuze
Rhodes University

Other deaths in the Eastern Cape province have been caused by infections or gangrene as a result of botched circumcisions.

And while South Africa has taken steps to tackle the problem, by registering practitioners, the number of deaths continues to worry many.

Professor Peter Mtuze, of South Africa's Rhodes University, said it was a "relatively new" problem - but that the rites themselves had been central to the passage from boyhood to manhood for generations.

"If you are not circumcised you are just not accepted as a fully fledged member of adult society," he said. "It opens the door to identity, integrity and participation in open society."

Prof Mtuze believes many boys are now undergoing the initiation rites at a younger age, and without the necessary self-discipline, care from mentors and support from home.

"I never even dreamt of not being able to go through it safely but today it is a matter of luck if you go home unscathed," he said.

"It's pretty tough because the operation is done without anaesthetic but it's not impossible if it's done properly."

Prof Mtuze said a problem for many boys was that they had lost touch with the ideas behind the rites. This meant they competed to be the first to achieve "manhood" and viewed anyone who admitted pain as a weakling.

"They think it's an endurance exercise rather than that they are being led into another stage of life, [where] you don't have to suffer anything to prove that you are a man."

Alien concept

Social pressures to conform to traditional practices can be very powerful - even when rituals run up against legislation or pose health risks.

A girl undergoes female circumcision in Somalia
Female genital mutilation can lead to future health problems

In Kenya, where female genital mutilation (FGM) is banned, a girl bled to death this month after trying to operate on herself because she was being teased by other girls for not being circumcised.

According to the World Health Organization, 100 million women worldwide have undergone FGM, which happens to three million girls under 10 every year, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.

In some communities it is believed that circumcision will maintain a girl's honour and is part of a girl's initiation into womanhood. But the WHO has described FGM as a form of "torture" that must be stamped out

Dr Diederik Janssen, a Dutch researcher, said Western ways of thinking often conflict with rituals that have become long-standing traditions in some cultures.

What is seen as a rite of passage by one community can be viewed as child abuse by another, he said.

"It's a huge problem and we see these problems most in parts of the world where modernity and tradition live side-by-side, for example in South Africa."

Alcohol deaths

In Western society, initiation is more often based on social ritual, with the military particularly known for its humiliation of new recruits with degrading tasks.

A senior soldier watches over the "hazing" of a new recruit in Ukraine
Army recruits can be made to carry out degrading tasks by their seniors

The Russian army is notorious for what it calls "dedovshchina", while hazing has also been reported in armed forces in the UK, US, Germany and France, among others.

High-profile cases of abuse in some US sports teams and college fraternities have led many states to pass anti-hazing legislation.

A number of students have died after being forced by more senior members to drink large amounts of alcohol or endure extreme physical tests in order to be accepted into the group.

Richard Sigal, a retired US sociology professor and anti-hazing campaigner, says the problem is that what begins as more-or-less harmless initiation rites - said to promote bonding - can descend into abuse as time goes on.

"People who haze have themselves been hazed. They carry it on and often it tends to escalate," he said.

"People try to out-do what was done to them so it gets more and more serious and more and more dangerous - and people start to get hurt."

So will preventative legislation and Western ideas of human rights mean an end to traditional rites of passage?

Dr Janssen believes not. He rather predicts that different cultures will alter their rites to fit with the times, as has happened for generations.

"People thought rituals were fixed and never changed but of course they do... they get reinterpreted all the time."

Kenya shock at mutilation death
23 Jun 06 |  Africa


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