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Ban on virginity testing riles South African Zulu community

PIETERMARITZBURG, South Africa—Wearing tight braids, dark sunglasses and a trendy white tracksuit, Nokuthula Shezi looks like your typical, appearance-conscious 17-year-old.

But she's careful not to attract the wrong kind of attention. She's a virgin, and so determined to remain one that every month she submits to a virginity test, letting an older woman inspect her body for signs that she's been sexually active.

Hundreds of girls like Shezi go for monthly tests in this Zulu-speaking, largely rural region of South Africa, where being certified a virgin gives a girl status. An ancient Zulu rite of womanhood, virginity testing has been revived in recent years in an effort to shield girls from the region's high rates of child rape, teen pregnancy and AIDS.

Now South Africa is about to ban virginity testing after years of criticism from rights groups who say the tests are invasive, medically unsound and biased against girls.

The ban is part of a children's rights bill that's passed South Africa's Parliament and is awaiting approval by a council of provinces. The bill also would regulate several religious and cultural practices deemed harmful to children. It outlaws female genital mutilation, gives boys the right to refuse ritual circumcision and prohibits forced marriage.

But it's the clause on virginity testing that's stirred the most controversy, pitting rights groups against South Africa's large and politically sensitive Zulu community and its traditional beliefs.

"The people who are saying this is a violation of our rights, they should come and talk to us instead of talking on our behalf," Shezi said recently, sitting in the shady park in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of the KwaZulu-Natal province, where she often goes for testing. "They have never asked us about our beliefs."

Originally used in the Zulu kingdom to set bridal dowries—11 head of cattle for a virgin instead of the standard 10—virginity testing died out in the 20th century under white rule. In the mid-1990s it resurfaced in KwaZulu-Natal as South Africa saw a sudden spike in deaths from AIDS.

The woman seen as the driving force behind the movement, a traditional healer named Nomagugu Ngobese, said she had a dream in 1994 that urged her to save Zulu girls from the AIDS epidemic. She began advocating virginity tests and claims to have inspected several thousand girls.

One weekend each month, several dozen girls come to Ngobese for testing, some as young as 6, most with their mothers. They share stories, discuss Zulu culture and talk about the dangers of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

Later, behind the cover of towels, Ngobese inspects each girl to determine whether she's a virgin. The test costs two rand—about 30 cents—and is usually over in a minute.

Donning rubber gloves, Ngobese looks for signs of sexual assault, such as bruises and cuts, and sores that would indicate sexually transmitted disease. She refers these cases to doctors.

There's no government licensing of virginity testers, and there's much debate about their accuracy. Rights groups say that beyond obvious signs of abuse or disease it's impossible to judge a girl's virginity by a physical examination, and some testers use techniques that seem questionable: judging virginity by the shape of the muscles behind the knees or the look in a girl's eyes.

Ngobese said her technique was straightforward. She looks for a hymen and, acknowledging that that's not always reliable, at the external condition of the vagina. An experienced person, she said, "can just tell."

The monthly sessions reinforce Zulu traditions and encourage girls to delay sex until marriage, she said, and are much more effective than government policies promoting condoms to prevent HIV infection.

Some 5.3 million South Africans—12 percent of the population—are infected with HIV, and the government's feeble response to the epidemic has been criticized worldwide.

"They have failed to talk responsibly about sexuality," Ngobese said. "They have failed dismally to minimize HIV/AIDS. They can criticize our culture but no one has died from virginity testing."

In some other African countries that are struggling with AIDS, officials have tried to promote virginity among young girls. A Ugandan legislator recently began offering college scholarships to proven virgins. In Nigeria last month, a local official said he'd have girls in his ward tested for virginity, with scholarships for those who passed.

Rights groups say virginity testing places the burden of abstinence on girls and advances the myth, common in many African cultures, that women are solely responsible for HIV transmission. In Zulu culture, while girls are expected to be chaste and demure, boys are admired if they are popular with many girls.

"A number of men are saying, `Yes, girls should be kept as virgins,' but are those men keeping their own virginity? They are not," said Thabisa Dumisa, a member of South Africa's Gender and Equality Commission, which backs the ban. "Are they striving to stay pure until they get married? They are not."

Opponents of virginity testing also decry the public testing of large groups of girls. In the past, Zulu families would conduct the tests at home. Now there are obvious social consequences for those known to be sexually active or the victims of sexual abuse.

Some testers mark virgins with white dots on their foreheads, while others get red dots.

"Everyone knows who failed," said Noreen Ramsden of the nonprofit Children's Rights Center. "It's extremely important that girls not be singled out."

Identifying girls as virgins also puts them at risk in a country where, according to surveys, 1 in 7 men still believe that having sex with virgins can cure them of AIDS, Ramsden said.

Ngobese said she was careful to maintain her girls' privacy. She keeps records of each test but marks every girl with a white dot, regardless of the result.

Despite all the criticism, she said, none of her detractors has seen her conduct a test.

"They are just trying to distract from the issue that they have done nothing about HIV/AIDS," Ngobese said. "But we are going to keep doing this. They will have to imprison me. We are not going to stop."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SAFRICA-VIRGINITY

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