Monday, September 27, 2004

Virginity Testing and AIDS

South Africa's moral regeneration movement has decided to urge the return of virginity testing of teenage girls as a means to fight the spread of AIDS:

On Wednesday, South Africa's Deputy President Jacob Zuma, a member of President Thabo Mbeki's cabinet, visited the city of Umtata on the Eastern Cape and praised a group of about 40 young girls for agreeing to take virginity tests, according to several press reports.
His visit is part of a controversial campaign to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS and reduce the incidence of teen-age pregnancy through encouraging young girls to take these tests. Human rights groups have condemned the practice as a violation of human rights and a woman's dignity.
Speaking to a crowd of local residents, government officials and reporters, Zuma called a young girl's virginity her "family's treasure," and lamented what he called the erosion of traditional African family values. The current situation in South Africa, he said, is one "where more and more children are giving birth to other children while still dependent on their parents."
Virginity testing, or ukuhlola, is an ancient practice that is still common in parts of Africa. The normal procedure is for teens to lie down on mats while a female examiner checks to see if their hymens are intact.

There seem to be two ways of looking at this proposal. One argues that returning to older customs will reduce intercourse and therefore the spread of AIDS. For this idea to work, it must somehow make teenage girls able and willing to stay virgins in order to pass the test. The problem is that the teenage girls in South Africa may in general not have much power to 'just say no' to sex. South Africa has one of the highest rape rates in the whole world and the traditional values that are praised in this proposal don't include the values of self-determination for women. Also, it does smell of an attempt to shame these young teenagers in public.

The other way to look at the proposal is to note that it seems to earmark a supply of young women who are guaranteed not to have AIDS from prior sexual contact. This is the nastier way, and probably the more realistic one. After all, the proposal does nothing to check on men's behavior, so the lopsided approach is more likely to tell which teenagers might be good targets for some powerful man's sexual adventures.