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Questions over virginity testing
Cleopatra Ndlovu, Women's Action Group
Extracted from Family Health International (FHI) Network:
2005, Vol. 23, No. 4
August, 2005

IMAGINE being 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?

Unfortunately, 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.

Virginity testing 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."

However, some 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.

Virginity testing 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.

*Cleopatra Ndlovu is Communications Officer with the Women's Action Group.

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