Virginity Testing: Increasing Health Risks and Violating Human Rights in the Name of HIV-Prevention

In several places in Africa, "traditionalists" are calling for a revival of virginity testing, a practice that typically involves checking for an in-tact hymen. In Swaziland, where King Mswati promotes abstinence-only-until-marriage for young women to reduce the spread of HIV, virginity testing is widespread.1 In South Africa, in July 2004, at the Nomkhubulwane festival-honoring a goddess of rain, nature, and fertility- approximately 3,000 young girls underwent customary virginity testing.2 In 2001, it was estimated that nearly one million South African girls in just one region have undergone the test since 1993.3 Other reports say that tens of thousands of children gather each month to undergo examinations in rural communities in South Africa.4

Virginity testing has taken many forms at various times in places as disparate as China5, Haiti, Italy6, Jamaica7, Turkey8, and Zimbabwe9. Virginity testing is primarily conducted on girls, but, in a very few instances, boys are also "tested." Females are eligible for testing when they are anywhere from seven to 26 years old. Virginity testing is sometimes a public event, conducted as part of a rite, and performed in church or at school. In other communities, virginity testing is performed at home by the girl's mother, an aunt, a neighbor, or a prospective husband. In some testing rites in the Kwa-Zulu Natal province in South Africa, girls who pass the exam receive a white star passed on their foreheads and a certificate confirming their virginity.10 Girls who do not pass the test are "taken off to the side and counseled."11

The social pressure is clear: girls go to extreme lengths in hopes of fooling testers, taking steps that risk injuring their vaginas. Some girls have reported pushing toothpaste or a piece of white lace dipped into tomato sauce into their vaginas to mimic a hymen. Other girls have inserted meat into their vaginas to mimic tightness, another supposed indicator of virginity.12

The testing has been opposed as ineffective, unhygienic, and a violation of human rights. Doctors confirm that checking for an intact hymen is not a reliable indicator of sexual activity.13 Women can break their hymens in ways unrelated to sex such as riding a bicycle, falling down, or inserting a tampon. Other girls have their hymens ruptured when they are sexually assaulted.

In fact, the threat of these tests motivates some young women and girls to participate in "virginity-saving" sexual practices that put them at risk for sexually transmitted diseases (STD), including HIV. In areas where there is rising social pressure to undergo virginity testing, some doctors report a rise of anal sex among young women, and hypothesize that this is related to the concurrent rise in HIV-infection rates in young women in these same areas.14

Today, in most places experiencing a virginity testing revival or the introduction of the practice, the HIV/AIDS pandemic is having a vicious impact. Proponents claim that this is "the most effective way" to prevent teen pregnancy and is "an answer to the scourge of AIDS."15 They characterize virginity testing as a "traditional," "African," or "culturally-appropriate" means of HIV-prevention. Proponents also claim that this practice helps communities both prevent and discover child abuse and rape.

In contrast, there are a wide range of sexual activities, many of which put people at risk for HIV-infection, that do not involve vaginal penetration. In addition, the increased value being placed on young women's virginity may play into beliefs that virgins have special healing powers and that sex with a virgin can cure a man of HIV/AIDS.16 Therefore, certification of virginity can put young women at risk for sexual violence.17

Furthermore, the physical invasiveness of checking a young girl's hymen may be traumatic for them. Although proponents of virginity testing argue that the participants consent to the procedure, women's rights and public health advocates claim that the testing is traumatic to the girls regardless of the results. Betty Makoni, the director of the Girl Child Network in Zimbabwe, characterizes this practice as sexual abuse.18 Advocates say that helping young women and girls feel a sense of power in relation to their bodies and sexual decision-making is crucial to ensuring their sexual and reproductive health. Undergoing a test that checks their hymens implies that someone other than themselves-such as the State, their families, or their prospective husbands-is in control of their bodies.

In the end, advocates argue that virginity tests will only serve to stigmatize and marginalize young women who do not "pass" the test. Stigmatization and marginalization fuels the HIV/AIDS pandemic and makes prevention and treatment even more difficult, they say.

Advocates say that this practice, which almost exclusively targets young women, constitutes discrimination, violates the right to privacy, may motivate girls to engage in behavior jeopardizing their health, and undermines girls' sense of dignity and empowerment, contravenes international human rights standards. Adopted by 179 countries in Cairo in 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action (ICPD) established a rights-based approach to sexual and reproductive health. In making recommendations for HIV-prevention, ICPD directs governments to address the gender inequalities that increase vulnerability.19 Reaffirming ICPD in 1999, the United Nations calls for "zero tolerance for harmful and discriminatory attitudes" towards women and girls "which can result in harmful and unethical practices."20 The United Nations also recognizes the importance of strengthening the self-image, self-esteem, and status of girls in protecting their health and well-being.21

Virginity testing is being opposed by a wide-range of local leaders and non-governmental organizations. In South Africa, groups such as the Commission on Gender Equity and the Midlands Women's Group have vocally opposed the sangomas (traditional healers) and traditionalists who are promoting the practice.22 In Zimbabwe, the Girl Child Network (GCN) is working to empower young women to resist virginity testing. As a result of this education and organizing, one ceremony organized in the Rusape area near the capital "reportedly collapsed through non-attendance by the girls."23

Human Rights Watch examination of the human rights implications of virginity testing.

More on the International Convention on Population and Development at the United Nations Population Fund.

References

  1. W. Hlongwa, Teens turn to anal sex to keep virginity, (South Africa: News 24, Jun. 26, 2004). Available online.
  2. Traditionalists call for virginity testing in HIV/AIDS campaign, Plusnews, Aug. 30, 2004.
  3. South Africa Reintroduces 'Virginity Test' to prevent Teen Pregnancy, STDs, (Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, Jan. 10, 2001). Available online.
  4. Ibid.
  5. F. Markus, Chinese brides may keep virginity secrets, (Shanghai: BBC, Jul. 31, 2002). Available online.
  6. A Matter of Power: State Control of Women's Virginity in Turkey, (New York: Human Rights Watch, Jun. 1994). Available online.
  7. Jamaican Lawmakers Propose Virginity Tests, Sterilization to Decrease Nation's Birth Rate, (Kaiser Family Network, Aug. 1, 2003). Available online at ??
  8. A Matter of Power.
  9. Zimbabwe: Tackling the impact of customs on AIDS, (Harare: United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN News), Aug. 17, 2004).
  10. South Africa Reintroduces 'Virginity Test' to prevent Teen Pregnancy, STDs, (Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, Jan. 10, 2001). Available online.
  11. Ibid.
  12. W. Hlongwa, Teens turn to anal sex to keep virginity.
  13. T. Bravender, MD, S. Emans, MD, M. Laufer, MD, Use Caution When Determining 'Virginial' vs 'Nonvirginal' Status, Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med/vol 153, July 1999 p.773. (American Medical Association, 1999). See also Francis Markus. Chinese brides may keep virginity secrets, (Shanghai: BBC, Jul. 31, 2002). Available online.
  14. W. Hlongwa, Teens turn to anal sex to keep virginity.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid. See also Zimbabwe: Tackling the impact of customs on AIDS.
  17. Harmful Practices: Virginity Testign, (Reproductive Health Outlook, 1997-2004). Available online.
  18. Zimbabwe: Tackling the impact of customs on AIDS.
  19. Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, paragraph 8.29, (Cairo: 1994). Available online.
  20. United Nations. 1999. Key Actions for the Further Implementation of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (A/S-21/5/Add.1), paragraph 48. New York: United Nations.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Nomkhubulwane: the goddess, the festival and virginity testing, on the Alan Paton Center website, South Africa oral history project. Available online. Last visited on Sept. 24, 2004.
  23. Zimbabwe: Tackling the impact of customs on AIDS.

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