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Harmful traditional practices violate human rights

Written by Allison Cooper

While Heritage Month celebrates traditional practices that can bring joy to many, there are also harmful traditions that are a violation of human rights.

Some of these practices include Ukuthwala (early or forced marriage), female genital mutilation and unlawful circumcision.

“The Constitution protects the rights of individuals and society to practice their cultures. It is just unfortunate that some people use these practices to hurt others. They infringe on the rights of others as they can be invasive and compromise the victim’s dignity,” says Rabbuh Raletsemo, Deputy Director of the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE).

These harmful practices are committed regularly and have been committed over such a long period of time that communities consider them acceptable. 

Raletsemo explains that Ukuthwala, for example, burdens a girl-child or young woman with the responsibility of being a wife, taking care of her husband and, in most cases, children and in-laws too. 

“The child’s social development is stunted, as early marriage and fast-tracking into the adult world skips organic developmental phases. In addition, the abducted child is removed from school which deprives her of education and skills training,” says Raletsemo.

Unlawful circumcision is when a young boy is abducted and forced into circumcision against his parents will or without the authorisation of the local traditional leader. “In some instances, the family is coerced to pay money for their child to be released,” says Raletsemo.

Initiation schools and unlawful circumcision have led to many deaths. “According to the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, approximately 500 boys have died at initiation schools over the past five years and less than 75 cases have gone to courts, leading to 14 convictions,” says Raletsemo.

While genital mutilation (cutting of sensitive genital tissue) is not a common practice in South Africa, it is practised in some African countries. “It impacts young girls socially, and their health and wellbeing.” 

Get help

Raletsemo says communities should report human rights violations to the police and institutions like the CGE. “Work with your traditional leaders and hold them accountable to ensure that, as custodians of culture, no practices are used to violate the rights and dignity of any community member.”

For more information or to receive help from the CGE, call the tollfree number 0800 007 709.