Updated 17 September 2014

Virginity testing in South Africa should be banned

Legally, virginity testing can be carried out on boys and girls between the ages of 16-18 years. But is the practice a relevant part of African cultural heritage, or a discriminatory infringement of human rights? A new article in the South African Journal of Philosophy explores answers to this question.

The last 20 years has seen the revival of virginity testing in rural KwaZulu-Natal. 

The test on girls, designed to affirm virginal status, is based on whether the hyman is intact.

The test is therefore far from 100% reliable; some women are born without a hymen, the hymen can be broken by tampons or sporting activities, and conversely, the hymen does not always rupture after one act of coitus.

Read: The hymen - myth or fact?

However, the results can have profound effects for the girl. Test results are only divulged with personal permission, but refusal to tell is tantamount to guilt, so in reality, privacy is not an option.

A ‘non-virgin’ verdict can result in awful consequences, ranging from honour killing, abuse, isolation, financial penalty, family shame, and poor marriage prospects.

Surely, such an inaccurate test should not have the power to affect the course of a young girl’s life?

A confirmation of virginal status can have equally damaging outcomes; rape by HIV infected men who believe sex with a virgin will cure them, or by people jealous of her pristine status.

With such terrible consequences, this test needs careful reconsideration about its ethical status.

Read: The truth about virginity testing in SA

The Children's Act (Act No. 38 of 2005) and its associated regulations allow for virginity tests to be performed on male and female children over the age of 16, but in practice is only performed on girls.

The markers for establishing a boy’s virginity are incredibly tenuous and there is no evidence of widespread testing on boys. The inclusion of boys is seemingly to establish an illusion of equality.

The widespread testing of girls indicates a belief that girls bear disproportionate responsibility for sexual activity and are ‘seducers of men’.

The author notes: “re-institution of virginity testing is intended to encourage young women to embrace a role for themselves as subservient, respectful and obedient.

This can only serve to perpetuate patriarchy and the dominance of women by men”. Such disempowerment can leave women and girls vulnerable to violence, abuse, and rape.

In theory girls are free to choose to participate in a test, but in practice coercion is often the order of the day.

Proponents of the practice refute the notion that it's an infringement of dignity and privacy. In the face of past oppression and attacks on customs, traditionalists emphasise its importance in African cultural values with the prized title of "virgin" overriding any fears of bodily invasion.

However, the author argues that no practice should be sanctioned solely on the basis of culture.

He joins the heavyweight detractors; the ANC, International Human Rights Commission, and Gender Commission, in condemning virginity testing as an unjust, discriminatory practice, and urges a complete ban on all virginity testing.*

Watch: How virginity testing works and why it's done

What is the South African Human Rights Commission's position?

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) says that African cultures have placed a high premium on the virginity of girls, especially for marriage purposes. In some cultures, the lack of such status could affect a marriage or the bride-price (bohali or lobola). 

Amongst the Zulu people, girls were examined by their mothers once a month to ensure that they were virgins. 

During the past 21 years there has been the re-emergence of mass based virginity testing particularly amongst the Zulu people. Virginity testing involves young girls being physically examined by traditional examiners to determine if they are virgins. 

ReadGlobal ban on female circumcision

Thereafter they are provided with certificates in a public ceremony and others attend the annual Royal Reed Dance sanctioned by King Zwelithini. 

King Zwelithini is reported to have condemned those opposing virginity testing and was quoted as saying that “… he would “rather be thrown in jail than allow the tradition he revived 21 years ago to be abolished".

The SAHRC maintains that the re-emergence of this cultural practice has led to concerns being raised about the potential invasion and violation of guaranteed constitutional rights of the young women who are tested.

These concerns have also been voiced by the Commission for Gender Equality and the South African Human Rights Commission. Read more at the SAHRC (PDF).

* Read the full article online at the Taylor & Francis Group

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