What is the truth about virginity testing

Every year thousands of young women around South Africa are tested to find out if they are a virgin – someone who has not had sex. Some respect this as a cultural practice, others find it degrading. Rise visited a Club in KwaZulu-Natal in 2014 and spoke to some of the women involved. We also asked two young women, Nomalanga and Amanda, about their experiences.

Nomalanga* (27) grew up in Sobantu, a township in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu‑Natal. She remembers her experience of virginity testing: “It was usually done in a room or enclosed area where a virginity tester would sit on a grass mat, wearing gloves. The woman or girl coming for her testing would lie down and spread her legs wide open. The tester would then open your vagina (like when you enlarge something on your touchscreen phone) with both hands in the vaginal opening. She would look inside, apparently to see if your hymen (see box on the next page) was still intact, or if the size of the vaginal opening had been enlarged by a penis.”

Amanda Ndlangisa (26) is a producer at a popular TV station. Her experience of virginity testing was slightly different. “Some testers would use a liquid in a small cap and pour it into the vagina. The idea was that if you are still a virgin, only a small bit of that liquid would flow into your vagina, but if your vagina has been opened by sleeping with boys, then the liquid will flow in easily,” Amanda explains.

Prizing virginity

Nana Buthelezi (25) values the procedure. “Umhlanga defines me as a woman of integrity,” she says.

Zanele Dlamini (22) agrees, saying, “Keeping my virginity protects me and allows me to build a future for myself before I start dating and settle down.”

Culture

Mam’ Dladla, who coordinates a virginity testing programme in KZN, is proud of the practice. “It is an amazing tradition which encourages young women to be proud of their bodies while they are still virgins,” she says.

Doctor’s comment

Dr Fuziwe Dlakavu, a medical doctor specialising as a gynaecologist at a Johannesburg hospital, says there is no science behind virginity testing. She explains: “No-one can examine a patient and guarantee, one hundred percent, whether or not they are a virgin.”

Dr Dlakavu says that every woman’s body is formed differently: some women’s vaginal openings are tighter or looser than others, and the absence or presence of a hymen is not an indicator of virginity. She says, “I’m tired of people who claim to know just by looking at a woman if she is having sex.”

Ceremony and talks

For both Nomalanga and Amanda, however, virginity testing is not just about checking for a hymen or vaginal tightness. Amanda describes how the ceremonies would be accompanied by singing, dancing, talks and teachings from the older women “about what it meant to be a woman, about the need to have self-esteem, to be proud of who we are, and not to let men make us feel less good about ourselves”.

Nomalanga also says she enjoyed the ceremonies and the teachings. She particularly remembers the reed dance as an exciting time for everyone in the Zulu nation. This annual dance takes place in Nongoma, at the King’s palace. It is preceded by an official virginity testing ceremony.

Being examined

In Amanda’s family, her grandmother decided to test the girls in the family herself at home. She did this to protect one of her granddaughters, who was raped when she was 12, and was therefore no longer a virgin.

She wanted to avoid gossip in the community. Amanda remembers having her first virginity test when she was 7 years old. She wasn’t told what the procedure was or why it was being done. Now, as a young adult, she believes that her grandmother was fearful that she and her girl cousins would get raped and they wouldn’t be able to tell her.

Amanda says she hated being examined and prodded by her grandmother and other women. She says she would have preferred her grandmother and her mother to have educated her about sex and to let her make her own decisions.

Sex talk taboo

“talk about sex was taboo in a traditional family like mine. No one explained anything to me about what sex was, what virginity was, or why I had to protect it. We were only told that we shouldn’t let boys touch us and that we should keep our virginity, because that is … the pride of our families.”

Nomalanga’s experience was similar. She says her father was the one who insisted that his four daughters get tested and that he would get the results. No-one ever explained to her or her sisters why it was being done. Even when they were at university, far from home, her father would regularly send for them to come home to get tested. Nomalanga says she “hated and felt angry about” the invasion of her privacy, the fact that she was forced to do this by her father, and that most often it would be performed by a total stranger who would be touching her private parts. When nomalanga’s father found out that one of his daughters was not a virgin anymore, he disowned her and never spoke to her again.

What is a hymen?

It is a body part about which there are lots of myths (a story that is not true) and beliefs.

The truth:

  • the hymen usually looks like a fringe of tissue around the vaginal opening.
  • the hymen does not cover the whole vaginal opening. (If it did, blood could not come out of young girls’ vaginas each month when they menstruate.)
  • Some girls are born without a hymen. Others have only a little bit of tissue.
  • Sometimes the hymen gets partly torn when girls play or are active.
  • Many women who have never had sex before don’t bleed when they first have sex because their hymen has already been a little bit torn.

If I was being a virgin for myself, I would have waited longer to have sex

Amanda also fell pregnant soon after she left home. She says that after she left for university and wasn’t forced to take the monthly tests anymore, she had sex as soon as the opportunity arose, out of sheer rebellion. She soon felt pregnant with her first child. Her mother was very angry with her. But Amanda says this anger contrasted with the way the family treated the news of a male cousin making a girl pregnant when he was just 15. This boy cousin was never shamed or punished.

All the family did was organise for the two cows, inkomo ya ka ma, for breaking the girl’s virginity and Inhlaulo − for the pregnancy. The girl’s bride price fell by two cows as a result of this incident.

Choosing for myself

Amanda is convinced that her virginity “… would have been much more important to me if I was keeping it for myself and because I wanted to, and not because I was nervous about failing my monthly tests.

If I was being a virgin just for myself and my own reasons, and if I had been empowered with the information about why it was important to wait before sex, I am sure I would not have had sex so soon.”

In contrast, Zanele believes the virginity tests protect her. “I know that engaging with sex at this time comes with many consequences which I am not ready for.”

And Nana values the procedure for the status it brings, saying, “The community sees me as an example for other young ladies on how a young woman should conduct herself.” Mam’ Dladla emphasises how important the procedure is in the community. “People must understand that it is part of our culture,” she says.

I am an example to others

Dr Dlakavu understands that some girls willingly take part in virginity testing to prove their purity to their communities and parents. But she asks, “Why should women be subjected to such outdated patriarchal* practices? And why should our sense of worth be determined by whether or not we are virgins?”

Virginity testing and the law

South Africa has a Children’s Act. This is the law about what can and can’t be done to children.

According to the Children’s Act:

  • Virginity testing of children under the age of 16 is not allowed.
  • Virginity testing of children older than 16 may only be performed:
    • if the child has given consent to the testing
    • after proper counselling of the child.
  • the results of a virginity test may not be disclosed without the consent of the child.
  • the body of a child who has undergone virginity testing may not be marked.

Article originally from Rise Magazine 8th Edition

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