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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: It Is Folly To Ban Virginity Testing In The Name Of Human Rights by Patekile Holomisa


A few years ago, soon after the first health minister introduced legislation prohibiting smoking in certain areas of public activity, I attended a wedding party in Johannesburg. It was evening and a number of African maidens were doing their thing on the dance floor. One of the people watching the goings-on with me noticed something we regarded as quite remarkable: none of these teenagers was smoking.

With the relaxation of laws prohibiting social and other intercourse between races, as well as the advent of freedom, a number of young people started indulging in social conduct that was anathema to their community values. It is well known that Xhosa women smoke and are quite elegant in the manner in which they hold their long-stemmed pipes. The right of a woman to smoke, however, is earned through the attainment of a certain age and marital status.

Thus we found ourselves grateful to see these young dancers behaving themselves in a manner that would have brought tears of joy to the eyes of their long-suffering mothers. Culturally, women and girls are the pride of the nation. Within the family and clan, the eldest daughter of the senior wife is the one by whom the men will swear — they do not call her name in vain; they mean what they pledge to when they invoke her name.

The telling of fables — iintsomi — is intended to teach children about proper moral conduct in life. The lessons discourage laziness, mendacity, dishonesty, stealing, cowardice, untidiness and similar social scourges. This is a task that is efficiently carried out by the women elders of the family. They are, therefore, the repositories of the histories, the customs, the good morals of the family and the clan.

Recently, and in preparation for a radio interview on the controversy surrounding virginity testing of girls, I consulted one such woman elder of my clan. I had come to notice that this particular custom was not as prevalent among the Xhosa as it was, for instance, among the Zulu. So I wanted to know if it was part of our customs. She confirmed my belief that it was indeed a Xhosa practice.

The reason it was not that prominent was because it was done in the privacy of the home, by respected aunts or grandmothers, with sensitivity to the need to respect the dignity of the child. The intention was not to parade and publicise the virginity status of the girl. The emphasis was more in ensuring that she led a life of chastity.

The loss of virginity was a state that brought shame upon the heads of the girl’s peers. They bore collective guilt because they had failed to advise and guide each other. They would be required to shave their heads and be prohibited from attending social gatherings for a period.

In anticipation of the inevitable question around gender equality, I asked my consultant: “What of the boy who takes away the girl’s virginity and thus her innocence?” As it turned out, the boy does not escape censure. He too is ostracised and prohibited from socialising with his peers for a period. He has brought shame to them as well. If he was due for initiation into manhood, he forfeits his right to do so that particular season.

In the event of the sexual intercourse between the boy and the girl resulting in pregnancy, both families are shamed, with the girl’s mother forced to desist from participating in certain social functions. She is regarded as having failed her fellow women of the village. The father of the boy is liable for damages resulting from the seduction and pregnancy of the girl. Due to the loss of cattle thus suffered, the boy would be forced to leave school and to seek work in the mines or other labour centres — he has chosen to lead the life of an adult and must bear the consequences.

The tendency of certain sections of human rights advocacy groups to trash African customs without first doing proper research into the reasoning behind the original adoption of the practices is doing harm to our communities. The promotion of human rights at the expense of these customs has the unintended consequence of promoting moral decline in the social conduct of our youth. Social malcontents take advantage by sexually exploiting girls and using them as fodder for drug dealers and pimps.

It would be folly for anyone to seek to ban the cultural practice of virginity testing in the name of human rights.

Girls are the major victims of HIV/AIDS and unwanted pregnancies. We cannot fight the disease by relying solely on the use of condoms. We need instead to devise more programmes that make it a shame once more for a young girl to engage in sexual intercourse, and for young men to do likewise. The print and electronic media are other culprits that need to put their house in order.

Programmes and articles that promote promiscuity must be confined to pornographic shops and be banned from mainstream media.

We should strive to reach the point where youngsters once more hide away their cigarettes when they see adults, even when they are strangers.


Patekile Holomisa is an ANC MP and president of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of SA. He writes in his personal capacity. This editorial appears in Business Day


Patekile Holomisa

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

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