MakanDay Centre for Investigative Journalism has exposed a concealed pattern of sexual abuse targeting girls, orchestrated by women acting as traditional counselors. This sinister practice not only victimises girls but also coerces them into engaging in early sexual activity

Despite increased demands to eradicate harmful traditional practices impacting women’s health, these practices remain prevalent, particularly outside urban areas.

In Chibombo, situated approximately 70 kilometres north of Lusaka city, elderly women employ various sizes of a root known as "chilebelebe" to manipulate the female genitals, preparing girls for sexual activities.

Surprisingly, despite Chibombo’s proximity to urban areas like Lusaka and Kabwe, the chilebelebe practice remain very common among the villagers there.

The root, sourced from a wild plant, is believed to serve a dual purpose. It is not only used to prepare girls for sexual activities but also aids women who are on the verge of giving birth.

Local residents mention that this practice was very prevalent in the past and it continues to be observed to this day.

Testimonies from the young women

Over a span of six months, MakanDay collected testimonies from several girls in Chibombo, which reveal that chilebelebe remains a prevalent practice in certain villages of Central Province.

Fridah Zulu, a 21-year-old of Shimbilo Village in Chibombo who had never had any sexual experience before, shared her experience with MakanDay, recounting how she was introduced to chilebelebe. She revealed that she first encountered the practice at the age of 13 when her grandmother introduced it to her.

“I used to attend school in Lusaka, and during school holidays, I would visit my grandmother here in Chibombo,” she said. “It was during one of those holidays that she introduced me to chilebelebe.”

She explained that she was taught how to insert roots of various sizes, beginning with the smallest and progressing to the desired size to accommodate male genitals of any size.

Fridah explained that her introduction to chilebelebe led her to engage in premarital sex, which ultimately resulted in her becoming pregnant, failing her grade nine exams, and eventually leading to her dropping out of school.

She recalled that after using chilebelebe on multiple occasions, she became accustomed to it and no longer experienced pain.

Marjory (not her real name), a 16-year-oldgirl of Mwamfuli Village in Chisamba district is another victim of the practice. She told MakanDay that she started using chilebelebe when she was 14 years old.

She mentioned that she first learned about 'chilebelebe' from her friends, who encouraged one another to give it a try.

She described how they would teach each other, and then engage in friendly competitions to see who could achieve the largest size the fastest.

Traditional Counsellors

Elizabeth Chimbofwe, aged 83, is a traditional counselor who previously facilitated the chilebelebe practice for girls.

According to Ms. Chimbofwe, the girls would venture into the bush to gather the roots. Once there, they would clean the roots by removing the outer layer with a knife.

Subsequently, they would procure another root called" Chintyombolo" (okra form), which they would pound and extract juice from. This juice was then applied to the chilebelebe root to lubricate it, reducing the risk of injury during insertion.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) speak out

The local NGO, Women’s Rights Organisation, operating in Chibombo, expressed deep concern over the ongoing prevalence of the chilebelebe practice, particularly highlighting the coercion of young girls into undergoing it.

Chairperson for Shimbilo Home Based Care Agness Sikute discouraged the practice saying it must be stopped as it is contributing to the high number of teenage pregnancies and early marriages.

Maureen Njela Ngulube from the Chibombo One Stop Centre told Makanday that the chilebelebe practice has contributed to the high cases of school dropouts and early marriages.

She also said that because of chilebelebe, the one stop centre finds difficulties in proving that the girl has been defiled because they can’t detect any bruises.

Mrs. Ngulube says sensitisation has been done on the dangers of harmful traditional practices amongst the population.

She added that chilebelebe encourages young girls to engage in sex at an early age.

Traditional leaders oppose the practice of chilebelebe

Headman Liteta of Mulenda Village in Chibombo said practicing chilebelebe is not allowed in his village as it is not good for the girls.

He urged parents to discourage the practice and advise young girls to concentrate on their education.

Chief Liteta of the Lenje people of Chibombo district strongly condemned the practice, denouncing it as a harmful tradition with irreversible repercussions on individuals.

As a custodian of his people, he said he is engaging in discussions to address such harmful practices, similar to his efforts in combating social issues like early marriages, defilement, and abortions.

His counterpart, Chief Chamuka the sixth, leader of the Lenje people of Chisamba district, urges traditional leaders nationwide to assess all cultural practices and discard the harmful ones.

Speaking during the 2023 sixteen days of activism against gender-based violence event in Kabwe, he emphasised the role of traditional leaders as custodians of positive culture.

He advocated for increased awareness about the government's free education policy to curb early and forced marriages stemming from teenage pregnancies, citing culture as a contributing factor to school dropouts.

Ennety, an investigative journalist based in Kabwe, is an integral member of the MakanDay network. She is being hosted as an intern by MakanDay after earning the third-place distinction in the 2023 MaknDay Awards for Investigative Journalism.