Zulus Eagerly Defy Ban on Virginity Test

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 26, 2008

NONGOMA, South Africa -- One week before, Nonhlanhla Mhkize had risen early, walked to her tribal chief's home, climbed a desolate hill and lain on a blanket for what leaders of her Zulu culture call an "inspection" of her genitals. Now the teenager glowed as she held up a document she had earned for the fourth year. It declared her a virgin.

"Here is my certificate!" Mhkize, an 18-year-old with magenta-streaked hair, said giddily.

Surrounding her were thousands of girls -- some barely school-age, most adolescents -- who had traveled to this windswept valley for an annual dance in honor of the Zulu king. Like Mhkize, all were bare-breasted and wearing traditional beaded skirts and necklaces. All were certified virgins, a requirement for participation.

In this rural Zulu stronghold on South Africa's eastern coast, it seemed of little matter that the Zulu custom of virginity testing, decried by gender and human rights activists, was banned for most girls in a bill passed by Parliament and enacted last year. Zulus here, who say it is a way to curb teenage pregnancy and AIDS, defiantly embrace the practice.

"There are changes and development in life, but that does not mean people have to change their culture," King Goodwill Zwelithini told the crowd, the fur tassels of his animal-skin cloak whipping in the wind.

The debate over virginity testing is an example of the clash common throughout Africa as governments try to regulate traditional practices that have long held sway, particularly in rural areas. Legal experts say the topic is particularly complex in post-apartheid South Africa, where patriarchal tribal cultures have dusted off long-stifled traditions under one of the world's most progressive constitutions, which lauds diversity but requires cultural customs to bend to individual rights.

South Africa has licensed traditional healers despite criticism that they are frauds, and it has legalized gay marriage over the protests of tribal leaders. This year, the nation's highest court recognized one woman's right to become the first female chief of her tribe, a decision condemned by some tribal leaders, while a bill that would regulate customary courts has stalled over disagreements about the role of women.

The virginity testing debate still simmers after a decade in the spotlight, despite the law prohibiting the testing of girls younger than 16. Elderly women typically perform the tests, often in front of the girls' parents, by inspecting their genitals for torn hymens. Most common among Zulus, South Africa's largest ethnic group, the practice is distinct from female genital mutilation, which was banned by the same law.

Among those who have backed virginity testing is Jacob Zuma, a Zulu politician who is expected to win the presidency next year. In a headline-grabbing appearance in 2004, Zuma -- who has several wives -- told girls attending a virginity testing program that, under African custom, their chastity was "their family's treasure."

South Africa's Commission for Gender Equality, which backed the ban, argued that girls were pressured to be tested, that the "public spectacle" of the procedure was degrading, and that girls who did not "pass" would be emotionally scarred, if not shunned. Girls who did pass, the commission argued, faced the cruel prospect of being raped in a culture in which some men believe that intercourse with a virgin can cure AIDS.

"The very notion of virginity testing as interpreted is that it's up to the girl to prove her virginity. . . . They are presumed to be the ones who are likely to be deviant," said Nomboniso Gasa, the commission's chair. "This practice, important as it may have been in the past, no longer serves our society."

Zulu proponents of the practice disagree strongly with that argument. The practice, they say, has never been more important in a country with one of the world's gravest AIDS epidemics. Virginity testing acts as a culturally sanctioned abstinence campaign, they say, preventing disease, unwanted pregnancy and even rape -- the identification of young girls who are not virgins, their theory goes, can detect child abusers in the community.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company