Virginity Testing: The Cure

It was a normal day in Durban, South Africa as thousands of young Zulu maidens made their way up to Nongoma in Kwazulu natal for the annual dance ceremony celebrating their virginity. This ceremony is a form of reed dance called “Umhlanga” and is generally culminated with a genital test to ensure that the hymen is still intact. When a girl passes the test, she is welcomed into the midst of women with ululating and cries of joys. This system might seem strange to other
people from other regions of Africa but it is one that has existed for centuries in Southern Africa, particularly amongst the Shona, Xhosa and Zulu people. In the past, this ceremony was more private with more focus being placed on the spiritual aspects of maintaining ones’ virginity but with the AIDS epidemic ravaging Southern Africa and the rest of Africa, the virginity test seems to be making a huge come back. It is not surprising that certain human rights issues comes to play – particularly when one takes into consideration that most people who take part in these rites are female and between the ages of 5 to 26.

In Support Of The Test
One of the messages being preached in mainstream media in containing the spread of the virus is one of abstinence. The virginity test is all about practicing the abstinence custom. Young people who pass the test can be proud of maintaining their status in society. Depending on the part of Southern Africa one happens to be in, one gets a certificate when they pass the test to prove to the whole community that they are virgins. In addition, with this test taking place generally in a traditional setting with several traditional routines (songs, dance) in place, it ensures the passage of traditional customs from the older age group (aunties) to the younger ones. As a result, this test ensures that traditional cultures do not die out. With South Africa just coming out of apartheid, it is no surprise that many want to maintain their traditional systems that kept them sane during that horrendous period of human oppression. In addition, an advantage of this test taking place in a ‘woman space’ is that it allows women to talk to young girls about their virginity and how to maintain it. Older aunties, also talk to girls who have lost their virginity about their loss, and in many cases, the stories told by these young girls often between the ages of 5 and 10 is a story of incest involving a male family member (father or uncle) raping them either for their sexual pleasure or to get a cure for the HIV virus.

Against The Test
There are so many factors that could be cited against the test. Primarily, the health impact, since in many cases, the women who administer this test do not take safety precautions. Many do not wear gloves or if they do, do not change gloves. So just imagine the same fingers going into several females on the same day – think about the health implications and how easily vaginal infections can be spread. Secondly, there is some psychological pressure because this test commodifies young girls. Passing this test increases the value of young girls in the community by tying females self worth to their hymen. In addition, in many Southern and Eastern African countries, there is a myth that exists that a HIV positive man can be cured from his disease by having sex with a virgin. This test brings attention to the whole community as to who is a virgin or not, so it is no surprise that many girls who might have been virgins have been disvirgined by these men looking for cures. Moreover, this test puts almost no pressure on men to maintain their virginity. If maintaining virginity is a source of pride then it should be a source of pride to both males and females. Finally, this test is a complete violation of privacy. It should be a woman’s personal choice if she wants to abstain or not? This test is discriminatory in nature because the same rule of thumb is not being applied across genders.

At first glance, this test might seem as the right way to go in stopping the spread of this disease but upon critically analyzing this issue – it is quite clear that virginity testing does not really aid in controlling the spread. Rather, it fuels a society in which people are hypocritical about their needs and wants by making the spread of the virus a moral one. You have women who will maintain their virginity via this tests but will eventually contract the disease from their HIV infected husbands to whom the idea of abstinence was not discussed. In many cases, you will expect that if this test is being used as a tool against the spread of the disease, then the use of preventive measures should also be spread as well. But, condoms are never discussed in the testing arena, neither is negotiating “the talk” with one’s partner ever discussed. Fortunately, the Children’s Rights Bill in South Africa, has made it illegal for these tests to take place but they still do. I think it is important that we as women understand that our sexuality is no ones business but our own as individuals. If we do decide to maintain or loose our virginity – it should be a decision that is logical and not based on fear of societal repercussions.

Questions for you
Do you feel that Virginity tests is still relevant to today’s African society?
How will you feel if the government decided to implement a test such as this in your region of Africa?

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