On a Sunday afternoon in the Zimbabwean village of Chinyudze, mothers are busy preparing special meals for the night’s celebration. For some, the event is special enough to slaughter a chicken, a sign of the day’s significance.
In one corner of the village, the sun shines through the dusty and cracked windows of the village’s one-room assembly hall. On a small platform at the front of the room, JD Nyarota- Mudzimukunze is speaking.
Sitting on the building’s cement floor are 60 girls and young women between the ages of six and 23, the reason for today’s celebration.
But while the girls are being honoured today, for Nyarota- Mudzimukunze and the local headmen and village leaders sitting on benches lining the walls, the day is a chance to teach the young women an important lesson that may one day save their lives.
“If any man tries to touch you, scream,” Nyarota- Mudzimukunze instructs the girls. “Tell your parents or your village leaders. This is rape.”
“Abstinence is what we believe in,” Nyarota-Mudzimukunze tells the virgins. “Total abstinence.”
The tribal leaders nod as Nyarota-Mudzimukunze, the representative for Chief Naboth Makoni, the village’s traditional leader, reiterates the importance of abstaining from sex until marriage and explains their sexual rights and responsibilities as women.
Nyarota-Mudzimukunze’s speech comes at the end of a weekend of celebration to commemorate these girls who have passed, for yet another year, the most important test of their young lives–the virginity test.
Seated at a table in a place of honour are several “princesses”, the female elders who conduct the virginity tests. At the back of the room several older boys listen as well.
Everyone looks at the girls with pride; their purity is a testament to their parents’–as well as the entire village’s–parenting skills.
In the centuries prior to colonialism, virginity testing was widely practiced by the Shona people of Zimbabwe. It was a way to prove a girl’s purity and thus increase the lobola–the bride price– potential husbands were required to pay the girl’s parents for her hand in marriage. Traditionally, a non-virgin would command a price of 10 cows while a virgin was worth 11.
When the British colonized what is now Zimbabwe in the 19th and 20th centuries, Christianity replaced the Shonas’ faith in many respects and practices like virginity testing became all but extinct. Now, however, the traditional practice has returned with a new purpose: to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Zimbabwe has the world’s second highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate, behind only South Africa. With between 25 and 33 per cent of the country’s 11 million people HIV positive, rural leaders felt virginity testing was a way to incorporate old tradition while addressing a contemporary problem. “At the rate they (young people) were dying we had to do something,” Nyarota-Mudzimukunze says.
While the Zimbabwean government hasn’t yet approved the practice, virginity testing has been adopted in several other areas of Zimbabwe as well as Swaziland and South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province.
At least three other Zimbabwe chiefs have approved virginity testing for the purposes of preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Last year, close to 20,000 young women were tested in Chief Makoni’s area, a large swath of land east of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. Nyarota-Mudzimukunze says this year the chief is hoping to double that number.
Testing methods throughout the country vary considerably, though “princesses”–elderly women from the respective village who have been trained in the testing method–are always responsible for examining the girls. In some places the princesses use fingers, wooden probes and even eggs, which are placed in the vagina and pushed in. If the egg breaks, the girl passes. Nyarota-Mudzimukunze says the tests his people conduct involve sterile water, but wouldn’t elaborate further.
Nyarota-Mudzimukunze says all the girls are tested voluntarily. Girls who pass are invited to a celebration while those who fail are counseled on the dangers of pre-marital sex.
In addition, Nyarota-Mudzimukunze says the tests serve as a way to detect whether a girl has been raped in the past year. He says there have been instances where girls have not reported being raped, especially if the rapist was a close friend or member of the family.
Nyarota-Mudzimukunze says the idea of teaching safe sex and distributing condoms, as has been a common approach to dealing with HIV/AIDS in much of the world, including neighbouring South Africa, is irresponsible and doesn’t send Zimbabwean youth the right message. Chief Makoni has been quoted as looking down upon condom distribution and sex education in schools because, he says, it encourages promiscuity and pre-marital sex.
“Guns are only given to soldiers,” he was quoted by Africa News in 2001. “Our children do not need condoms. They need education. Let us stop condom distribution to our children, this way we will win.”
The traditionalists may have a point, to some degree, says Sara Page of the SAFAIDS, a southern African AIDS organization. “If it can delay the age at which people have sex, it will have an effect on HIV/AIDS,” Page says.
But Page and Susie Baird of the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network (ZWRCN) warn that not only is virginity testing far from accurate, it is also potentially more detrimental to young Zimbabwean women then beneficial.
They argue that the majority of new HIV/AIDS cases in Zimbabwe are appearing amongst married couples. They argue virginity testing does little to curb this trend as extra-marital sex is a day-to-day occurrence. In addition, males are not given the same message as women. “Those kinds of approaches only focus on the women,” Page says.
Girls are instructed on their sexual rights, including the right and responsibility to say ‘no’ to sex and male advances. Baird says this is an unrealistic expectation: tasking the girls with sexual responsibility before and during marriage in a male-dominated society. She equates the virgins to “little fish who are surrounded by sharks and then told not to swim outside the circle. The boys are the sharks and they are just waiting for the fish.”
Another problem is the fate of those girls who fail the virginity test or do not “volunteer” to take them. The combination of family and peer pressure often means the girls have little choice but to comply, otherwise it is presumed they have something to hide. At the end of the virginity celebration, the girls who pass are given certificates to prove their purity. These certificates are treasured by the girls and their families and displayed proudly in the home.
Those who fail, the women’s rights groups say, are awarded with shame and discrimination. They say there are numerous non-sexual ways a girl could break her hymen and that virginity testing could stigmatize a girl who has never had sex before.
“The certificates are like a status symbol,” says Baird. “If you don’t have a certificate they look down on you.”
The certificate and publicly announcing a girl’s sexual status is also a potential danger for those who pass the virginity tests. A common myth in rural Zimbabwe and South Africa perpetuated by those countries’ traditional healers is that sleeping with a virgin will cure the HIV/AIDS. As a result, there have been numerous cases of HIV/AIDS positive men raping girls and even newborn babies in an attempt to save themselves.
By publicly announcing a girl’s virginity, often in church, the women’s rights groups are worried that men will start prowling the villages in search of virgins. “People are desperately trying to save themselves,” Page says.
Advocates for virginity testing say the practice is also useful in preventing and tracking rape and sexual abuse, especially within the family. But for girls who have been raped and are afraid to report the crime, failing the test could only magnify their embarrassment and pain.
“If they’ve been raped, they may have a high degree of stress already,” Page says. “If they fail, they will only feel more repercussions in the form of increasing stigma and shame.” Besides, Page says, virginity testing is useless for detecting anal and oral intercourse and may, in fact, increase such actions for that very reason.
Late last year, Makoni met with health professionals and women’s rights groups to try to eliminate some of these complaints. According to Nyarota-Mudzimukunze, girls who fail their tests are now being included in the entire process in an effort to reduce discrimination and stigma.
In addition, while there is no way to determine if they are still virgins, boys are being taught the same lessons: abstinence and monogamy.
These are good starts, Page and Baird say, but there is still a lot of work to do if virginity testing is to ever become useful in preventing the spread HIV/AIDS and a positive experience for young Zimbabweans. “If it includes skills building, especially where women are being taught their rights, it is useful,” Page says. “If that’s what it covers, great. But right now, their bodies aren’t their own.”
Lee Berthiaume is currently a journalist for the Peterborough Examiner. He was a winner of the Edward Goff Penny Award for Young Journalists in 2003 . Lee recently returned from a year in Africa, having spent five months working for a health-related NGO in South Africa and two months working for an independent weekly paper in Zimbabwe. He has also freelanced for the South African Mail & Guardian newspaper and the Ottawa Citizen.
This article appeared in the March/April 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .