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over virginity testing
Ndlovu, Women's Action Group
Extracted from Family Health International (FHI) Network:
2005, Vol. 23, No. 4
Rudo (not her real name), a 16-year-old girl living in an area of
Zimbabwe where girls are tested for virginity.
Rudo's turn to be examined comes. An elderly woman asks her to lie
down, opens her legs, and then examines her using a finger - which
has been inserted in other girls' private parts that day - to see
if she is still a virgin. How does Rudo feel?
the practice of virginity testing has been resuscitated over the
years, with people claiming that it preserves African identity and
culture. Various groups - sometimes ethnic groups, churches, or
families - perform virginity testing in Malawi, South Africa, Swaziland,
Zimbabwe, and other African countries.
Girls as young
as five years old may be tested. If a girl is found to be a non-virgin,
the payment for her as a bride will be lower, or a man may refuse
to marry her. Even if the man agrees to marry her, the girl and
her family are often shamed and ridiculed.
Boys, in contrast,
are not subjected to such intimate examinations. Boys and men are
not even expected to remain abstinent before or faithful during
marriage. Their sexual "purity" is not questioned. In Zimbabwe,
as in many other places, male sexual experience is often encouraged
and male infidelity tends to be condoned.
Why is virginity
testing done? First, it is meant to ascertain girls' sexual purity
at marriage. Second, it is intended to discourage girls from engaging
in sexual activities prior to marriage and, thus, may be considered
a way to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS.
This is the
case in Zimbabwe, which has one of the highest HIV infection rates
in the world. For example, Chief Naboth Makoni of Makoni district
includes virginity testing as part of his anti-AIDS campaign.
He says virginity
testing of girls helps prevent HIV infection in his district (which,
ironically, has the highest rate of HIV infection in the country)
by making premarital sex shameful and thus discouraging it. Thousands
of young girls have been tested in Chief Makoni's area.
It is true that
- for both girls and boys - abstaining from sex until entering a
mutually monogamous marriage protects against the sexual transmission
of HIV. But virginity testing is not necessarily an effective way
to achieve this goal. Nor is it fair. For example, some girls fail
the test because they have been victims of rape or incest.
When their loss
of virginity is discovered during testing, they become stigmatized
while the perpetrators often go unpunished. In other cases, girls
may have had to exchange sex for food just to survive. Also, a girl's
hymen may have broken naturally. Although she has never had sexual
relations, she may be declared a non-virgin and suffer the consequences.
Finally, the practice of virginity testing implies that girls' sexuality,
but not that of boys, is the root cause of HIV transmission.
is likely to be harmful for many girls, regardless of whether they
pass the test. First, this intimate examination strips a girl of
her dignity. Virginity testing is said to be voluntary, but parents
under societal pressure may coerce or persuade their daughters to
undergo the practice.
Girls who fail
the test are often stigmatized by their families and the community
for months or years, and their marital value falls. To preserve
their virginity, girls and young women sometimes will resort to
other forms of sexual intercourse, which pose more risks of HIV
infection than vaginal sexual intercourse.
Some girls say
that they feel happy when they pass a virginity test. In a newspaper
interview, a young school girl said: "If you are a virgin, you feel
proud and have self-esteem and confidence in what you are doing."
girls who pass the test are at risk: They may be married off to
older men whose virginity and HIV status is unknown but may already
be infected with HIV. In fact, HIV-infected men may seek young virgins
for marriage because they believe the myth that having sexual intercourse
with a virgin cures the infection.
in Zimbabwe is controversial, and people have different opinions
about it. But let us ask ourselves these questions: Is virginity
testing really a good way to curb the spread of HIV and AIDS? Does
it not violate young women's rights and deprive them of power and
control over their bodies and sexuality?
What is being
done to help girls who have lost their virginity due to rape? What
are the health risks posed by using the same gloves or fingers not
necessarily washed well on several girls? To whom are these girls
married after being tested? Are their husbands HIV-negative?
Why is the virginity
of boys not being questioned? Why do these double standards of sexual
purity for boys and girls exist?
So many questions:
Let's think about them.
Ndlovu is Communications Officer with the Women's Action
Visit the Women's
Action Group fact
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