Virginity testing - absence of a small tissue becomes big issue

This weekend, thousands of Zulu maidens will make their way to Nongoma in northern KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Province, to participate in 'Umhlanga', the annual reed dance ceremony celebrating virginity.

The traditional gathering takes place in the wake of controversy surrounding the soon-to-be-outlawed testing of virgins: the Children's Bill was approved by parliament in July 2005 and, if passed by the National Council of Provinces, the legislation will impose an outright ban on the custom.

Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini lashed out at the government, saying he was opposed to the ban, while traditionalists and other groups vowed to defy the law.

Nomagugu Ngobese, founder of the Nomkhubulwane Culture and Youth Development Organisation, is an angry woman. One of the more prominent virginity testers, Ngobese has spent the last seven years advocating the practice, and considers herself a "professional".

"They are trying to ban our culture, religion - but it's not going to work. I'll never stop; the day I stop is when they [young girls] stop coming to me," she said.

Two weeks before the reed dance ceremony, they were still making their way to Ngobese.

On an overcast Sunday morning in Pietermaritzburg, KZN's capital, there was a palpable sense of excitement as about 120 young girls lined up in leafy Alexander Park to submit themselves to a genital examination to determine their virginity. The early arrivals sat around chatting in groups in the brightly painted playground, waiting for "Auntie" to lead them to a more sheltered part of the park.

A handful of mothers huddled around the rubber-gloved Ngobese as she performed the inspections on a grass mat. Ngobese uses a single pair of gloves while examining the teenagers.

When a girl passes, the women clap and ululate but when someone fails, an accusing silence follows the girl, who is asked to sit in a private corner and wait for an older woman to "counsel" her.

SELLING OUT AND CASHING IN?

Traditionally, although young girls were often tested privately in their own homes, the focus was not on the inspection - there was a high spiritual value placed on virginity, instilled through instruction by older women, Dr Queeneth Mkhabela-Castiano, a former lecturer in indigenous knowledge systems, told PlusNews.

After falling into disuse, the practice made a comeback around 10 years ago when the HIV/AIDS pandemic began to take hold. The media also started taking an interest, churning out a slew of reports on the inspections.

With all this attention, virginity testing had inevitably become "commercialised", Mkhabela observed. "It's out of control ... and the essence of it has been lost."

Individuals rather than families were now at the forefront of the practice, and the testers had succumbed to the hype by introducing gimmicks such as certificates, she added.

Back at Alexander Park, one of the testing "veterans", 18-year-old Zintle Dlamini, who has been getting routine checks done since she was eight years old, sat on a rock and "registered" the girls by recording their names and collecting a R2 (US $0.30) fee from each.

Girls who passed the test later paid an additional R6.50 ($1) to receive a certificate stating how proud the Zulu nation was of her virginity.

Scoffing at suggestions that she had "sold out" by charging for inspections, Ngobese pointed out that this was her main source of income.

"This is my [only] job. They [the state] are not paying me, and they don't want to employ me. I have no choice. Where is all this money I am supposed to be making? I'm barely making ends meet."

Mrs Luthuli, a pre-primary school principal and mother who has been bringing her daughters to Ngobese for years, is a long-time supporter of the tester. She and a few other parents have embarked on a fund-raising campaign to ensure that Ngobese's work continues.

THE POLITICS OF TESTING

According to Dr Jerome Singh, head of the Bioethics and Health Law Programme at the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the move to prohibit the inspections has exposed the ideological clash between culture and human rights.

"It's a slippery slope ... but nothing can stand up to the constitution, which is the highest authority in the land - even if it seems to undermine customary practices," Singh pointed out.

Critics have argued that the practice violates children's rights: their right to privacy, bodily integrity and dignity.

The Commission on Gender Equality, which has been at the forefront of advocacy efforts to halt the practice, described the test as "discriminatory, invasive of privacy, unfair, impinging on the dignity of young girls and unconstitutional".

Ngobese angrily referred to these arguments as "the distortion of information", remarking that by focusing on these individual rights, people had forgotten that "we don't live alone, we live communally here".

"Protecting children? They are creating laws that are destroying families," Ngobese charged.

An emotional Luthuli agreed: "We parents have been marginalised: I am not renting children owned by the government. If my ancestors tell me to do this, I can't argue with them."

The debate has become politicised. With the ongoing controversy over axed former deputy-president Jacob Zuma, who faces charges of corruption, Ngobese alluded to an elaborate conspiracy to undermine Zulu culture.

While in office, Zuma was reported as having encouraged girls to take the test as a way of curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS and reducing the prevalence of teenage pregnancy.

Ngobese and other testers and traditionalists will be marching in the port city of Durban, KZN, on 17 September to demand that the government review its stance on virginity testing.

In downtown Durban, Cati Vawda, director of the Children Rights Centre, an NGO, pointed out that it would be difficult to implement the legislation, as virginity testing was seen by many as part of the revival of indigenous knowledge systems suppressed during the apartheid era.

But Simangele Ngcobo, Vawda's colleague, was wary of romanticising the practice. According to her, not enough attention was being paid to the burden put on the children undergoing virginity testing, and the emotional consequences for those who failed the examination.

"What about the boys? Nobody inspects them," she pointed out.

Singh noted that, as recent surveys indicated, pressure emanating from virginity testing was resulting in young girls engaging in anal sex in order to keep their status as virgins intact - contributing a greater risk of spreading HIV/AIDS.

IMPACT ON HIV/AIDS PREVENTION

Dr Fiona Scorgie, senior research fellow at the Centre for HIV/AIDS Networking at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, spent time between 2000 and 2001 with some of the first virginity testers.

She said the debate over human rights versus cultural rights had reached a deadlock.

"We can sit arguing till the cows come home, but the more urgent and pragmatic issue is HIV/AIDS. If we look at it just from that [perspective], then virginity testing is not effective - it has failed on so many levels [to reduce HIV/AIDS prevention]," she told PlusNews.

By placing sexual responsibility on the girls, virginity testing had ignored the gender dynamics contributing to the pandemic and had become part of the problem: testing failed to address male sexuality, responsibility, and the high levels of gender violence in the country.

In the park, Ngobese also lectured the girls on AIDS. "If you are getting married, 11 cows of 'lobola' [the bride price] are useless if you are going to end up with AIDS - that's why VCT [HIV voluntary testing and counselling] is important."

Condoms were mentioned only once during her discussion. "Don't use condoms, simply abstain, abstain, abstain," she told her audience of fidgety young girls.

"I spend peaceful nights knowing that my children have been educated by Nomagugu. They are protected," Luthuli commented.

While admitting that it would be good if more young people chose to delay their sexual debut, Scorgie warned that, at some point, young women would become sexually active, requiring skills to negotiate condom use.

However, despite her reservations, Scorgie believed an outright ban was not a "helpful long-term solution".

READY AND WILLING

But, while people sit in their offices debating the issue, Zintle Dlamini and the rest of the girls in Alexander Park are willing and vocal participants.

Dlamini, Nokuthula Shezi and Rachel (last name withheld), for example, have become the Nomkhubulwane group's public faces.

Smart, articulate city girls, looking forward to university in 2006 and 2007, the girls are not the typical "submissive Zulu virgins" often portrayed in the media, and Ngobese encouraged them to air their views.

"I hate the way people assume things about [the people being tested]. I go to a Model C [multiracial] school, speak English, and I like fun and have a boyfriend, but I can still respect my culture," Dlamini commented.

Nevertheless, she admitted that most of her peers were reluctant to come. "They think it's not for them. I'm always telling them to come - I guess they're too modernised for this."

The three are also on a committee handling the logistics of transporting certified virgins from the Nomkhubulwane group to the reed dance in Nongoma. Shezi will be writing her exams three days before the ceremony, "but there's no way I can miss it - it's like a huge get-together."

"If the banning happens, I don't think this will stop - maybe Auntie will just start coming to our homes, instead of doing it here," she added.

But Ngcobo at the Children Rights Centre is sceptical about the willingness of girls to undergo virginity testing: "They think they want to go, it's the latest fashion now."

When it was her turn to be examined by "Auntie", Dlamini - wearing a black tracksuit and a bright pink bandana - nonchalantly walked into the testing circle, removing her pants and stuffed her underwear into her pockets.

Although she is proud of her status, Dlamini is not fazed by the thought of losing her virginity. "It won't be the end of the world - it's going to happen someday."