Page 2 of 3   <       >

Zulus Eagerly Defy Ban on Virginity Test

Critics, who note that the hymen can tear in many ways unrelated to sex, say no research backs up those arguments.

Nomagugu Ngobese, a sex educator in the provincial capital of Pietermaritzburg, said she has trained about 800 virginity testers. She said that testing is never forced and that most girls find it "uplifting." Contrary to what critics say, she said that there is also a virginity test for boys, though she declined to describe it.

"They must leave culture aside," Ngobese said. "Human rights are individual rights, which is not the way for us. We live communally."

To Ngobese and other supporters of the practice, the ban was evidence that Western mores were winning.

"They say the constitution does try to be all things for all people," said Phathekile Holomisa, president of the Congress of Traditional Leaders, a lobbying group. "But it also says those cultural practices must be subject to the bill of rights and the constitution. . . . The interpretation has so far been negative toward African cultural practices."

Yet the virginity testing ban is also an example of the limited power of law over culture. A spokesman for South Africa's social development department said that the ban's regulations were still being worked out but that violators could be subject to criminal charges.

But few, including Gasa, picture police raiding villages. If nothing else, she said, the law gives legal backing to girls who want to defy tradition.

On this blindingly sunny September day in Nongoma, thousands of girls strode toward the royal palace through parched hills dotted with thatched-roof huts. Each girl carried a reed as tall as a house as an offering to the king, who revived the annual reed dance -- an ancient Zulu celebration at which the king traditionally chose a bride from among the maidens -- in 1984. Custom held that if the reed broke, the girl was not a virgin.

Organized in groups by community, girls danced past the king and his entourage and sang Zulu-language songs tailored to the occasion.

"The king says there must be virginity testing," went one. "How? Virgins must lie on their backs, put up their legs and be tested. Look! Virgins, virgins, virgins."

In the flat plain below the palace, Thobeleni Ntuli, a stern woman with a cellphone stuffed in the bodice of her black beaded dress, said she had never heard of the ban. She said she began testing her daughters and now offers it as a public service to other girls, most of whom start at age 9.

"It is important so that young girls become scared of boys," said Ntuli, 45. "Because what happens is first the boy strips you of your virginity, and the next thing you know is you are pregnant and you have HIV."

<       2        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company