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Zimbabwe’s virginity tests raise heated debate
by Tim Chigodo and Justus Waimiri
CAPA 040416-6
April 16, 2004

[CAPA - Central Africa] A section of the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe has supported “virginity tests” as a way of checking the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The “testing” is conducted by traditional healers for both boys and girls. The youths who pass the dreaded test are awarded certificates “in recognition of their purity.” The certificates are said to be almost like status symbols among the youth, and those who do not have them are looked down upon by their contemporaries.

The issue raised heated debate recently during a six-day conference of World Changers School of Missions, held in Harare and attended by clergy from the Anglican Church, Apostolic Faith Mission and a non-governmental organisation known as Love in Action Trust.

Under the virginity and purity tests exercise, local headmen and village leaders encourage girls to say no to sex, and report any boy or man who attempts to touch them. Elderly women inspect the girls, while men inspect boys, to ensure that they have not been sexually active.

The programme is managed by traditional chiefs, led by Chief Makoni of Manicaland in eastern Zimbabwe, and Chief Nemakonde of Mashonaland.

In traditional days, virginity tests were widely practised in Zimbabwe to prove the purity of girls. Normally, brides fetch more bride price from their prospective husbands if they are found to be virgins. The bride price is usually in the form of dairy cattle and money.

The testing practice, which was almost extinct, has been revived in Zimbabwean communities as a traditional way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. Total abstinence is being encouraged among the youths.

During the past four years, girls in Chief Makoni’s areas have been undergoing virginity tests and the practice is now being adopted in all parts of Zimbabwe as well as in Swaziland, and parts of South Africa.

The idea of reviving virginity tests came when the government urged local leaders to take part in more cultural activities as a way of stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Tests are also being conducted among young men joining the National Service after secondary education.

During the conference, representatives of the Anglican Church strongly advocated for abstinence as the best way of fighting the scourge, and readily supported the tests.

Critics of the practice, however, say that the virginity tests are degrading, and should be done away with. They say the process ignores other forms through which the AIDS virus is spread, and even when it is through sexual intercourse, other dynamics like rape are not considered.

Others have argued that by publicly issuing girls with virginity certificates, they become easy targets of men who believe that they can get their HIV-positive status reversed by sleeping with virgins.

Besides skyrocketing inflation that has hit Zimbabwe following sanctions by Western countries, prompted by a controversial land redistribution programme by the government, AIDS has also taken its toll, with 3,000 people said to be dying of the disease each week. Government medical facilities are strained, while ordinary people are too impoverished to seek better private medical services. Antiretroviral treatment is still expensive and inaccessible.

The sanctions were effected after the government, led by President Robert Mugabe, ordered white landowners to vacate their land for native landless Zimbabweans.

Last year, Anglican Southern Africa Archbishop, Njongonkulu Ndungane, was invited by President Mugabe to mediate between Zimbabwe and the United Kingdom, following heightened tension between the two countries over the land issue.