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Date: Thu, 30 Sep 1999 22:55:01 -0500 (CDT)
From: Grassroots Media Network <gnn@grassrootsnews.org>
Subject: South Africa: Virgin tests make a comeback
Article: 78408
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.24088.19991001091607@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Virgin tests make a comeback

By Chris McGreal, in Osizweni,
in the Daily Mail & Guardian, (Johannesburg)
29 September 1999

Critics fear children pronounced 'pure' in traditional virginity tests could become sexual prizes as Aids wracks KwaZulu-Natal.

OF all the examinations Valentia Hlophe will face at Qophumlando secondary school, the one that matters to her is the test she has already passed. The certificate proving it hangs in the 14-year-old's home for visitors to scrutinise. It proclaims Valentia a virgin. "This shows I have not been touched by evil things," she said.

Valentia is not alone. Many of her friends at school in northern KwaZulu-Natal have earned their certificates in a resurgence of the ancient custom of virginity testing. And it is not only girls in this South African culture who seek to proclaim their abstinence.

The Zulu tradition was originally intended to assure the purity of brides. It fell into disuse in many parts of the kingdom when migrant labour, forced removal and what passed for white civilisation eroded family structures. The scourge of Aids, already rampant in the north-eastern state of KwaZulu-Natal, has revived the practice, encouraged by a revival of black consciousness.

In Osizweni township the revival is being driven by Sipho Malinga, deputy headmaster of Qophumlando school and head of the All Africa Cultural Organisation.

At Qophumlando school (motto: First Things First), about half the 1,500 pupils have undergone a virginity test. Fewer than 30 failed.

The testing can be individual or part of a broader celebration of Zulu culture, involving the slaughter of cows and homage to the monarchy. In either case the girls are told by the female teacher who checks them, Thabile Ngcobo, to remove their knickers and lie on their backs. She then checks to see if their hymens are intact.

"I don't use my fingers as some others do because it can damage the girls and the next time they will fail the test," she said.

A group of giggling young women comes forward to declare themselves proud to be virgins.

"Our parents encouraged us. They want us to stay virgins. People are happy about what we are doing and they are encouraging us to carry on," said Susan Hadebe, 15.

Mr Malinga, who is also the science teacher, tests the boys. First he checks their penises. A hard foreskin is considered a sign of purity. Then they are asked to urinate.

"If the urine is in the form of a shower it shows you are unfit. If it is straight, you are a virgin. We get them to urinate in the sand. The urine of a virgin makes a straight hole. We also test the knees. If the fingers go in above the knee he has done the job," he said.

Among those with a virginity certificate on his wall is Raymond Malakoana, 20.

"Virginity testing protects you from different types of evil. It makes you avoid Aids and many other diseases. It assists you to abstain from crime and drugs and to avoid bad friends who can spoil your life," he said.

Critics of the testing contend that there is no scientific standard by which to ascertain whether a girl is a virgin, let alone a boy. Doctors point out that hymens can tear accidentally. Occasionally a girl is born without one.

South Africa's Commission on Gender Equality held a special meeting on virginity testing and concluded that on the whole it is a bad thing.

There is also a danger in being recognised as a virgin. In some parts of South Africa there is a belief that sex with a virgin cures Aids. The police believe it is a major contributor to the rising numbers of child rapes. But those who favour testing argue that the certificates help young women resist the enormous pressure for sex.

"We have got a problem as Africans because we don't have babysitters," Mr Malinga said. "Parents come back from work at dusk. They are exhausted. They don't know what has been happening during the day, if their children have been exposed to violence, crime and sexual practices.

"We have to show that we think all of those things are wrong. This way virgins will congregate with virgins. It will be a proper cure for Aids."

Qophumlando school says no one is forced to be tested, but there are pressures. Some of the girls taunt those who refuse to be examined, saying it is an admission they are not virgins. Mr Malinga thinks that is probably true in many cases.

To encourage the pupils, one of the teachers said that she too would be examined. At morning assembly it was announced that Philisiwe Hlatshwayo, 25, had passed.

Testing is conducted at five other schools in Osizweni, on children as young as six,"so they get used to it". Parents from outside the township also bring their offspring. It does not always go according to plan.

"One time there were about 380 boys we were expecting for tests. Someone told them we were using electricity on their scrotums so they ran away," Mr Malinga said.

But sex education is off the agenda, he said. "We are against the use of condoms. We think condoms promote lust for sex. If a person has condoms he can go to another man's wife knowing he will not get her pregnant.

"I don't think we should teach children about such things."

-- The Guardian, September 29, 1999.

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