Hymen exam

Girls and young women are tested for virginity in South Africa as part of an AIDS and pregnancy prevention program.

Published January 9, 2001 8:39PM (EST)

Last month, hundreds of topless girls and women ages 7 to 26 congregated at a sports stadium near Durban, South Africa. They lined up to take turns lying on their back on a mat, where a woman lifted their loincloth and used her bare hands to inspect each female's hymen to see if it was still intact. Those who passed the test jumped for joy, and received a white star pasted to their forehead and a certificate confirming they were still virgins. Those who didn't were taken off to the side and counseled. After the inspection, the girls and women sang and danced in traditional Zulu fashion.

Once thought obsolete, this tradition is making a comeback as a method to stop teenage pregnancies and the spread of HIV. Something clearly has to be done, because local popular myth says that to cure AIDS, have sex with a virgin, and voilà, the AIDS will disappear. South Africa possesses not only an extraordinary number of AIDS cases but also high incidences of rape and child abuse. Advocates of the virginity ritual say it's the most effective prevention because girls become afraid and do not engage in sexual activity. On the other side are those who argue that the rite is a violation of human rights and personal dignity, as well as dangerously unclean.

From a biological perspective, the danger of contracting HIV from the same unwashed hand that inspects hundreds of vaginas is apparently lost on the participants.

"We have come here to celebrate and keep our culture going," said a 16-year-old girl named Brenda Mkhize. "It's better to be a virgin than to have AIDS and have a baby at the age of 16."

"We are here because we are proud of ourselves, because we are virgins," another girl told Reuters. "We want to show the world we can live without doing those things that other girls are doing -- without sleeping around. We are protecting ourselves from HIV."

Advocates of the test claim that it has already been successful. Nearly 1 million girls in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province have submitted to the test since it was revived in 1993. The region is said to have one of the world's highest rates of teen pregnancy.

"This is our culture; we believe in it and want it to continue," said test advocate Andile Gumede. "We are helping people to wait until it is the right time for them to take their decisions -- when they have their own accommodation and money to raise children. Children at the age of 13 don't have the power to say no to a man, can't say 'no sex without condoms.' We are here for them; we are not here to abuse them."

The virginity testers acknowledge that in most of the instances in which a young girl fails the test, it's not because of sex with her boyfriend. The girl is usually a 7- or 8-year-old who has been abused by uncles or other male relatives. The freaked-out child is urged to talk about her experience and is given support and advice. Advocates say that if a girl has already been sleeping around, she is not a prime target of the test.

By Jack Boulware

Jack Boulware is a writer in San Francisco and author of "San Francisco Bizarro" and "Sex American Style."

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