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Boys dying from botched circumcisions in South Africa

Male circumcision is currently being promoted in many parts of Africa as a way for men to help protect themselves against HIV/AIDS and yet in some places, botched circumcisions are leading to the deaths of young boys.

A BBC article highlights the risks faced by boys in certain ethnic groups, where men are expected to undergo ancient rites of passage. These can involve circumcision by individuals who have no medical training or qualifications, leading to deaths from infections such as sepsis and gangrene.

In South Africa, more than 240 young boys have died over the last five years from botched circumcisions, some as young as 13 years old. Most come from the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, where thousands of young men in the Xhosa and Ndebele communities go to initiation ‘schools’ each year. These ‘schools’ see young men through a rite of passage into manhood. This normally involves taking boys out into a harsh secluded environment in the wilds, where they must undergo hardships such as being starved or going with water. They can also be subjected to physical assaults, which are meant to teach virtues such as courage and discipline.

Spending an average of six weeks away from their families, normally in June and July or November and December, the youngsters are also circumcised. While many well-established initiation schools employ well-trained people to do this, some use bogus surgeons or ‘iingcibi’ (traditional doctors) who are not properly trained. Eastern Cape officials rescued more than 300 boys last winter who needed hospitalisation.

The BBC’s reporter visited one teenage boy in a hospital in Mathatha. He nearly died after developing gangrene in his penis which caused his organ to fall away in what’s known as a ‘spontaneous amputation’. Another young boy did not survive his initiation, dying from dehydration after weeks at a camp. Speaking to the BBC, his mourning mother explained the pain of not being able to bring the perpetrators to justice because “no one wants to talk to me” or tell her who performed the procedure.

Traditional doctors are now required by law to register themselves with the authorities. However, many individuals choose to operate with permits. It therefore needs officials to work closely with communities in order for the dangers to be clear. Until there is a wider understanding of the risks involved and the importance of ensuring youngsters are under the care of qualified people, horrific injuries and deaths among young men and boys will continue to happen each year. 

Laurinda Luffman signature