testing: 'an African solution to a pressing African problem'
in The Witness, 10 October 2005)
October 10, 2005
in East London, a Xhosa nurse expressed herself in the media on
the subject of virginity testing, promoted by the local Royal
House and encouraged by the (female) Eastern Cape Premier. She
complained that the procedure, enclosed in a public ceremony,
was degrading for young women as they were paraded topless and
wore only short beaded skirts. She argued that the process
infringed on their rights to privacy and choice.
This Xhosa nurse said nothing new. By the sound of it, she had
long joined the overcrowded ranks of liberals who have, for
centuries and with varying success, been rescuing African girls
from the clutches of their own, evil culture. The fact that the
vast majority of these young virgins, who are so degradingly
paraded, topless, with short, beaded skirts, happen to be
willing participants in the ceremony is frequently lost on the
well-meaning liberals of all hues.
The new Children's Rights Bill, compiled by them, passed by the
National Assembly and awaiting the approval of the National
Council of Provinces, amounts to an uncompromising ban on
virginity testing, as we knew it. The bill is an undisputed
victory for the liberals. Undisputed, because the draft law was
never taken for feedback to the communities which it primarily
The so-called traditionalists were never asked for comment, let
alone asked to review the bill.
The bill will effectively criminalise anyone who conducts
virginity testing, as well as the parent of the child who allows
it to happen. As a result, the bill will effectively criminalise
an ancient cultural practice, which encourages our girls to
remain sexually inactive and helps to prevent the spread of the
HIV infection within our communities.
There are, of course, other cultural practices that tend to
invoke the liberal wrath. Some, like male circumcision, incur
real casualties. Others, such as female genital mutilation, are
truly demeaning to women. Neither of these, however, has been
earmarked for a ban like virginity testing. It is therefore hard
to read the Children's Rights Bill, as it stands, as anything
other than selective and opportunistic. It is easy to interpret
it as a move against Zulu culture.
The liberals, whose cultural prejudices the members of our
ruling party so happily espouse when it suits them, have
consistently relied on Western scholarship and science for
"impregnable" arguments. For a long time, African
traditions and cultural practices have been (unfavourably)
contrasted with their enlightened parallel practices in the
West. The supporting arguments, needless to say, are riddled
with inconsistencies and absurdities of the kind an opposition
politician like myself likes to expose.
Now it seems that even this unrelenting tide is turning. Western
scholarship is rediscovering the social value of African rituals
with renewed vigour. Western science is following fast. Last
month's findings by the French and Swiss medical authorities,
widely published in the media, have identified male circumcision
as an important factor in reducing the risk of HIV transmission
in the African circumstances.
Similarly, virginity testing is finding allies in most unlikely
venues of Western academia. Apparently, its sociological
implications are overwhelming. Having a virgin as a daughter is
a source of tremendous maternal and paternal pride in the
African culture. The psychological implications cannot be
overlooked either. Virginity is a strength and a constant source
of empowerment for girls in youth culture which, mainly in rural
areas, is still dominated by patriarchal stereotypes. Sexual
abstinence, which it results in, is a confirmation of what
HIV/Aids activists have been saying to us all along: prevention
is better than cure.
I support virginity testing. In the communities that I tour
during my constituency visits, there is a shockingly high
incidence of child abuse and incest. Virginity testing for girls
and babies is an established practice. The testers are older,
experienced women from the respective communities. They are
doing a good job in exposing baby rape and incest. Exposure is a
reliable warning to the perpetrators. Anyone from a township
will tell you that.
But our liberals do not generally live in townships. They do not
see child abuse and incest occurring on a daily basis right on
their doorstep. They can therefore afford the luxury of
upholding abstract principles, which cut so little ice with all
of us who support virginity testing from life experience.
This brings me to my point. Virginity testing is an effective
African solution to a pressing African problem. Not much more or
less than that.
Lauretta Ngcobo is an IFP MPP.