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Investigate Zimbabwe's Virginity Tests

by Thamsanqa Zhou Jr Director of Strategy for ZUPA
06 Apr 2012 at 16:43hrs | Views
(Bulawayo, 06-04-12) Allegations that girls, some barely teenagers, at a primary school in Zimbabwe were stripped in front of their male counterparts while adults examined their private parts from desk tops, are extremely disturbing. If true, this would be one of the worst cases of abuse of the rights of the girl child which is why the Ministry of Social Services must immediately commission an investigation into the allegations.

For centuries, the virginity of an African girl has been a symbol of how cultured and reputable a family was. The proud families would justify the perfect upbringing by charging more for lobola (bride price) when the daughter finally marries.

The globalisation of universal rights and the work of campaigners have, however seen the practice banned in several countries over the years.

Britain, in Europe stopped policies that included virginity tests on unmarried women who applied visas to join "future husbands" in 1979. In other parts of the world, the practice was to continue for decades with India reportedly banning it just some 3 months ago.

A number of countries may have laws that ban virginity tests, such as in Egypt where a court recently banned forced tests on female detainees. The practice however continues in many communities in a number of African countries inspired by what maGobese founder of Nomkhubulwane Culture and Youth Development Organisation in South Africa considers the right culture. It would be unfair if this article ignored those young women who do it by choice as part of their culture.

The different cultural practices in Zimbabwe are remnants of tradition. In all of the known cultural norms, Zimbabwean communities have always valued the dignity of women and the girl child. Childbirth and community midwifery are a case in point.

No men were allowed nearby. No men chose Gynaecology as a career and walk the streets. How times have changed.

In recent years, cultural festivals that celebrate the practice have resurfaced under a contemporary theme. A traditional leader in Manicaland Province of Zimbabwe has been at the fore front of promoting the revival by defending virginity tests as a way of combating the spread of HIV/AIDS. During one of the festivals in 2004, he told parents: "You must be shamed of yourself if your daughter does not have a virginityconfirmation certificate, because the whole village will scorn you."

While combating HIV/AIDS is a new theme, traditionally the practice has been based on efforts to maintain social values. Bridal virginity in Zimbabwe for instance remains an honour to the family. Even churches in this deeply religious country have a solid and consistent message: "No sex before marriage."

In some cultures, if the bride was found on the night not to be a virgin, a white bedsheet with a big hole would be sent to her family as a sign of protest. The mental torture for her and shame on her family would set the tone for the two families' relationship for life.

In the event that a young woman falls pregnant outside marriage, the cultural practice is to punish the family of the responsible man or boy through paying "damages." To defend their honour and pride, families seek to protect their girl child. From the days of her childhood, a protective and hostile environment is built around a girl child by brothers, parents and close relatives especially males. The methods can range from social curfews to threats to any young men who may dare have a word with "our daughter."

The "damages" practice defines the attitude of the Zimbabwean society. The notion here is that the young woman has no rights separate from the expectations of her family. The responsibility for taking away her virginity, evidenced by the pregnancy would fall on the man's family. The effort could have been to deter.

Virginity tests may have happened for centuries in Africa, but it has always been a practice done by women elders in the villages and men were never told of when it was done, to whom and even the results. The elderly women in the village may have had other ways of "testing" that did not include the physical examination that respected the right of the girl child. Maybe it was just facilitating a discussion and asking direct questions in a protective environment. It worked then.

Today, Zimbabwe is a country facing one of the most challenging social and economic times. The Social Services and the Government appear to be failing to protect the girl child from all kinds of abuse. Too many girls are victims of rape by those who mistakenly believe that "sleeping" with a virgin will cure them of HIV/AIDS or help bring luck to their businesses. Other young children, especially orphans are sexually abused by members of the extended family who should be protecting them. An unknown number may be victims of politically motivated sexual violence.

I have written in previous articles about the failure by communities and the Ministry of Social Services in Zimbabwe to protect children. The majority of abused children have no-one to trust or report to in confidence. They lack confidential support. They endure the abuse for years with permanent mental and physical damage.

Concerned villagers, community leaders, and schools lacking support from Government may become desperate leading to inappropriate intervention.

The allegation of the tests on primary school girls in Zimbabwe will rekindle memories of another traumatic case almost a year ago when a women caretaker in Beatrice, near Harare was arrested for allegedly conducting virginity tests on 15 school girls by inserting her fingers in their private parts. The corresponding charge
would be one of aggravated indecent assault.

It would seem from the reports in the cited case that community elders suspected that young girls were being sexually abused but lacked evidence. The girls, out of fear refuse to talk. The communities may have decided to go back to what "has worked in the past," virginity tests.

The tests themselves invoke human rights issues that I leave for another day. What has raised emotions among Zimbabweans and defenders of the right of the child are reports that young girls may have been "examined" in classrooms in the full view of their classmates including boys. That is not a way to the future mother of the nation. I am hoping the allegations are not true.

Unbelievable and as distressing as this may be, virginity tests on young girls in the manner reported need urgent investigation by the social services in Zimbabwe. How many other schools are doing so and what is the impact on the affected children? Any children that have been affected need adequate support and counselling.

Above all, the Government of Zimbabwe must urgently address the root of this crisis, which is the failure by the social services to protect the children from the abuse which evidence is now being sought by community leaders and schools through further abuse.

Zimbabwe is a signatory of the UN Convention on the Right of Children. While the debate about the pros and cons of the practice go on, the right of the child must be protected.

Whether today's society still values virginity for marriage purposes is doubtful. Defence of the practice as a medical or legal requirement for investigating crime is reasonable but however it is done, if at all, the human right of the girl child must be top of the list.

That is the way I see it this week.

Thamsanqa Zhou Jr is the Director of Strategy for ZUPA, the association in
Zimbabwe representing the interest of unemployed people or in poverty. He is writing
the Column "The Way I See it" weekly,

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Source - Thamsanqa Zhou Jr