In South Africa, ritual and legislation collide

A new South African law puts new prohibitions on girls' vaginal inspections.

By Hillary Frey

Published December 30, 2005 2:22PM (EST)

The New York Times has a report today on the fight going on in South Africa over the ritual vaginal inspection of girls. The South African parliament recently passed a law that would ban most inspections, saying that the revered Zulu custom is unscientific, discriminatory and possibly emotionally damaging (girls who are determined not to be virgins are often stigmatized by their communities). To many Zulus, though, the inspections are a way of delaying sexual activity in girls, which in turn might help to halt the spread of HIV.

The movement to preserve customs and the push to pass women's rights laws have been clashing in sub-Saharan Africa for years. Although women have made extraordinary advances in Western eyes -- the NYT points out that women are deputy heads of state in at least seven countries, and a president in one, not to mention that they hold one in six parliamentary seats -- many efforts to enshrine women's rights into law have been watered down after protests by tribesmen and women.

Still, the South African ban carries some water. Although Parliament backtracked this month -- after voting to ban virginity testing entirely, it restricted tests to girls 16 and over who give consent -- it's still better than no law at all. Carol Bower, the executive director of Resources Aimed at the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, which lobbied for the ban, told the NYT it's "an O.K. compromise."

Hillary Frey

Hillary Frey is the Books editor at Salon.

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