Thomas Banda (name changed) tip-toed in the dead of night to the nearest hut where the two young girls were sleeping. He entered and forced himself on the defenceless girls and had sex without their consent.
He was among 20 boys who had just graduated from the traditional school where boys who have come of age are taught life skills. This act is the Segu (meaning ‘to open’) a practice found in the Eastern Province of Zambia where boys target young virgin girls to prove their sexual prowess.
When I interviewed Banda, who has since moved to Lusaka, he regretted his action. He said: “I was ignorant at the time and never realised that the Segu tradition was a bad one which contributed to the spread of HIV and AIDS and sexually transmitted infections like Syphilis.”
He narrated that during the same Segu encounter, a pregnant teenage girl suffered a miscarriage.
Segu is a form of violence that has serious medical, social, economic and psychological consequences on the life of a girl and can affect relationships and decision making regarding sexuality and related issues. It also increases risk of HIV infection among women and girls.
In Africa, culturally accepted norms and practices often limit a woman’s ability to safeguard her own sexual and reproductive health and survival. In many countries, the law remains silent about harmful traditional practices such as child marriages. In areas where protective legislation does exist, statutory laws can be undermined by customary laws.
Programmes that emphasise the role of men as agents of positive change and involves them more fully in promoting gender equality and social change offer significant opportunities to help men understand how gender inequities harm women and girls.
Gender based expectations can keep men from enriching the lives of their children and their own lives as well. Many societies condone male risk taking and use of violence to exert authority. Risk taking behaviour by men and boys such as having sex with many partners is seen as a measure of a young man’s virility. Such behaviour, which is very common in Sub-Saharan Africa, not only puts the man at risk but endangers the lives of their partners.
The situation calls for comprehensive, age appropriate sexual and reproductive health education for youth both in and out of school in every society. The foundation from adolescence to adulthood should be supported and enriched through public policies that value girls’ and boys’ rights, cherishes their potential and encourages gender equity.
To affect lasting change, laws and policies to ban harmful practices must accompany locally driven education efforts to end such practices and honour the rights of girls and women. It is a well known fact that this will take time, leadership, activism and education at the local and national levels.