Virginity testing: 'an African solution to a pressing African problem'
(Published in The Witness, 10 October 2005)

October 10, 2005

Recently 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 concerns.

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.