|Virginity testing and HIV/AIDS: Solution or human rights violation?|
|Written by Nicola Hugo (1) Monday, 16 July 2012 08:14|
This CAI article discusses virginity testing as a growing trend in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), South Africa. The revival of virginity testing, and the social interest in virginity being promoted by these tests, needs to be understood in the context of communities hard hit by HIV/AIDS. While this article explores the rationale behind testing as a ‘culturally appropriate’ strategy for managing the pandemic, it also addresses the ways in which these tests infringe on the human rights of girls and perpetuate female oppression through strict monitoring and control of female sexuality. Fiona Scorgie suggests that debates illustrate “the difficulties that arise when applying universal conceptions of human rights to local contexts.”(2)
On 11 September 2011 an estimated 20,000 Zulu virgins gathered at King Goodwill Zwelithini’s royal palace for the annual Zulu reed dance.(3) The celebration is said to promote respect for young women and preserve the custom of keeping girls virgins until marriage. Due to the fact that only virgin girls are allowed to participate, the festival provides justification of virginity tests. The celebration once again flamed debates over the traditional practice of virginity testing.
Virginity testing in KZN today
The re-emergence of virginity testing started around 1994 in urban and peri-urban townships in KwaZulu-Natal where local women would organise small-scale events aimed at publically testing teenage girls. The aim of these events was to promote pre-marital chastity and “reinstate female virginity with the importance it once had.”(4) These initiatives grew to become monthly testings at various public township venues such as community halls or sports grounds. Girls between the ages of eight and 25 “line up, then lie in a row on their backs on grass mats spread out on the ground.”(5) Girls part their legs while older women, practised in virginity testing, make their judgment. These women peer briefly at each girl’s exposed genitals, occasionally parting a girl’s labia, to confirm the presence of an intact hymen. When a girl is confirmed a virgin celebrations take the form of dance, singing and ululations. When a girl fails, she is taken aside so that testers may enquire about the reason for her lost virginity, and teach her how to abstain in the future.(6) Today the numbers of girls attending these events vary from between 40 and 300.(7)
Revived or reinvented tradition?
Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala explains that there are two influences that shed light on the re-emergence of virginity testing. One influence stems from the birth of democracy in South Africa in 1994 with its discourse on African Renaissance and the rights of groups to ‘practice their culture’. The other is linked to the spread of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and its subsequent mortality rates.(8)
This `return to culture’ is a way in which communities are trying to address the HIV/AIDS crises. Communities turn to the past, reviving an “ancient” cultural tradition that had fallen into relative disuse,(9) in order to find solutions to modernity related changes. But are these traditions simply revived, or are they being reinvented?
Virginity testing is a practice believed to have been common in Zulu households in pre-colonial times.(10) An appointed elderly woman would carry out tests at the local chief’s homestead on his command and mothers and grandmothers would perform tests in their own homes. The virginity-testing trend is most notable in societies organised along lines of patrilineal decent and patrilocal/virilocal patterns of residence.(11) Ethnographers explain that the regulation of pre-marital sexual behaviour was to control fertility to ensure that children were born within the boundaries of the patrilineal.(12) It was not uncommon for the boy’s family to pay an additional head of bride-wealth to the girl’s family if she was ‘proven to be a virgin’. This practice continues to this day.(13)
Ethnographic accounts (such as Lugg 1929, Gluckman 1940 and Bryant 1949), on the Zulu people, describe a keen public interest in a girl’s developing body and sexual behaviour. The traditional practice of ukushikila, for example, involved teaching girls to expose their lower bodies, back and front, upon command.(14) This offered a way of regularly assessing a girl’s degree of physical maturity and could also be used as a rough measure of sexual experience.(15)
Leclerc-Madlala explains that practices such as ukushikila cannot simply be taken out of their broader social, cultural and historical context and transplanted into modern day settings. Grasping their ‘original’ meaning, she explains, “requires an understanding of a more ‘authentic’ paradigm of cultural holism that once shaped African society and philosophy before the imposition of western colonial capitalism.”(16) And gender activist Nise Malange explains, “the commercialisation of African culture has taken the custom of virginity tests of adolescents out of the private sphere where it belongs.”(17) Indeed, using a universal rights perspective on morality can result in such practices being understood as sexist or even out right abusive especially if one considers the form this practice sometimes takes:
“Mass genital inspections at football stadiums with prominent members of particular political parties giving speeches to endorse the process, where money is exchanged for paper certificates and the bribing of testers is not unheard of, and where girls are warned about HIV and the dangers of wearing short skirts.”(18)
AIDS pandemic: Drawing on the past for present solutions
In South Africa, where it is estimated that approximately 5.5 million of the country’s 48 million people are infected with HIV/AIDS,(19) communities look to the past for solutions to the crises. Erika George explains that virginity testing has become one of the country’s most celebrated and politically charged public health initiatives in response to the pandemic.(20) A disproportionate share of those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS in South Africa are female (between the ages of 15 and 24) who are believed to be four times more likely to be infected with HIV/AIDS than males in the same age group.(21) Proponents of the virginity testing believe that total abstinence from sexual intercourse or delaying sexual debut is the best way to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS. They argue that virginity tests offer a way of enforcing adherence to this solution.
According to Leclerc_Madlala, the gendered response of virginity testing to HIV/AIDS is consistent with gendered notions which link HIV/AIDS to the moral transgressions of ‘modern’ women.(22) Consequently, controlling women`s bodies and sexuality (through practices such as virginity testing) is seen as an effective response to the disease. Virginity testers believe that virginity is one of the “country’s greatest defense[s] against the spread of HIV/AIDS.”(23)
Virginity testers rely on the prestige of virginity to encourage girls to abstain. Traditionally, virginity held strong symbolic and cultural value as representing “health, vigour, fertility, and the future, not only as embodied in the individual, but as embodied in communities and wider society.” And today this prestige continues to be emphasised “through gold-edged certificates and signed testimonials granted to girls who have ‘passed’ their virginity tests.”(24)
Arguments supporting virginity testing
One of the strongest arguments supporting virginity testing today is that its practice at least attempts to do something to address the spread of HIV/AIDS, especially when, according to popular belief, the South African Government has failed to do so. Testers believe that by encouraging girls to treasure and guard their virginity, they will curb unwanted pregnancy and HIV infection rates. Leclerc-Madlala suggests that some girls appreciate the social support and solidarity that develops amongst girls who participate in testing. With this added emotional support they are more likely to remain sexually inactive and withstand boys who pressure them into engaging in sex.(25)
Furthermore, it is argued that virginity testing is but one aspect of a greater educational effort to revive traditional values associated with womanhood. In some cases girls are taught traditional craft skills, cultural performances, agricultural practices and the preparation of traditional foods and customary dishes. Many girls are grateful for the opportunity to learn new skills, meet other girls and become part of a supportive network of women encouraging one another to steer clear of pregnancies and HIV infections.(26)
Lastly, virginity testers argue that virginity testing offers opportunities to identify cases and incidences of sexual child abuse in communities and can in turn refer such cases to the appropriate authorities. According to Leclerc-Madlala child rape is prevalent in many KwaZulu-Natal communities and cases remain underreported. This trend is compounded by the culturally induced silence regarding matters related to sex. While Leclerc-Madlala acknowledges the possibility that virginity testing is assisting in managing this problem in a small way, this link remains unsubstantiated.(27)
However, while the supposed benefits of virginity testing give insight into the motivation for and popularity of the practice, several dangers remain.
The dangers of virginity testing
Members of the South African Human Rights and Commission on Gender Equality have condemned the practice of virginity testing.(28) They are concerned that the expectations that virginity testing place of young girls, i.e. subservience regarding their sexuality, are contradictory to dominant HIV/AIDS campaigns based on ‘empowering’ women to protect themselves.(29) Girls become used to strangers touching their private parts and make public declarations about their sexual status. Indeed, this is at odds with the constitutional laws that protect rights to equality, privacy, bodily integrity and sexual autonomy.(30) It appears, in this context, girls are not taught a sense of personal ownership over their bodies and sexuality.
Rather than relying on individual choice to abstain, tests evoke shame and fear of stigmatisation. The extreme measures girls take to avoid ‘failing’ tests illustrate this point. Leclerc-Madlala explains that girls try to create the appearance of an intact hymen, believed to resemble a white veil located high in the vaginal canal, by pushing toothpaste or pieces of white lace dipped in tomato sauce into their vaginas. Girls have also reportedly inserted pieces of freshly cut meat into their vaginas, in order to make their vaginas appear virginal tight.(31) Consumed by the fear of failing a virginity test girls may be agreeing to, or suggesting anal sex to their partners. Doctors in areas where virginity testing has become common, report a rise in physical traumas associated with anal sex activity amongst young women.(32) These examples illustrate that with virginity tests looming, girls are adopting sexual practices that increase, rather than decrease, their risk of acquiring HIV.
Yet another concern is that virginity testers themselves assist the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections when they touch and inspect one girl after another at mass virginity testing ceremonies. Scorgie notes that many of the testers have only recently learnt the technique to testing on a large scale.(33) In response to this, health authorities in KwaZulu-Natal have started donating latex gloves to virginity testers and have trained them on how to use them properly.(34)
Ethne Nthingila, of the Children’s Rights Center in Durban, suggests that the rise of virginity testers in KwaZulu-Natal has brought with it a rise in cases of sexual abuse.(35) In a practice where girls are taught to spread their legs for authorities wanting to ‘test their virginity’ the increased vulnerability of girls to sexual abuse is obvious. Nthingila refers to actual cases whereby abusers gained access to girls by claiming to conduct a virginity test.(36) This demonstrates yet another way in which virginity testing may aid the rampant spread of HIV/AIDS, rather than curb it.
Lastly, virginity testing with its public declarations of virgin status may be dangerous in a context where virgins are targets for rape. Virgins are targeted for two reasons: Firstly, girls who appear ‘too proud’ of their virgin status attract the envy of other girls. Research conducted by Leclerc-Madlala finds that jealous girls have gone as far as to encourage and facilitate male relatives and friends raping girls known to be virgins. Furthermore, this research reports that a virgin girl is often gang raped in order to ‘show her what men are all about’.(37) Secondly, virgins are targeted for rape because of the belief that “virgins have special healing powers and that sex with a virgin can cure a man of HIV/AIDS.” In a study by Anderson in 2002, 13% of over 9,000 youth believed that ‘virgin cleansing’ could prevent HIV/AIDS.(38)
In a country with one of the highest rates of rape in the world and where “it is estimated today that almost half of the county’s women can expect to be raped in their lifetime,” remaining a virgin is hardly a matter of choice for young girls.(39) Gender activists point out that virginity tests do not allow for an investigation as to why a girl or young woman is not a virgin, for example, because of rape, abuse or incest. This means that women who have suffered these injustices are ostracised by communities and are sometimes accused of being prostitutes when they fail virginity tests.(40) In this context virginity tests are nothing more than a public demonstration and reinforcement of women’s subordination, an intensification of the suffering and humiliation caused by widespread gender-based violence.
The resurgence of virginity testing has birthed debates about the difficulty of marrying universal human rights with cultural relativism. These difficulties arise because human rights claim to be trans-historical and trans-geographical, when in fact the very construction of a universal liberal human subject is questionable. Furthermore, the national emphasis on cultural rights in post-apartheid South Africa inflames these tensions, because of problematic reified constructions of ‘culture’ taken out of context.
While these immensely complex debates are important, they do not bring about immediate change in the lives of women suffering humiliation and compounded gender-based violence at the hands of virginity testers and communities. While touching briefly on the opposing arguments, the preceding discussion illustrates that the sexual health risks of virginity testing, in many respects, outweigh the benefits of abstinence promotion through virginity tests. Drawing on a practice, which stems from patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity is hardly a good response to a disease that is affecting more women than men in South Africa.
(1) Contact Nicola Hugo through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit (