Independant On-line, Traditionalists see virtue in virgin testing
Sibusiso Ngalwa, 29 August 2004

The practice of ukuhlola died out during the past century, but has made a comeback in various areas of South Africa, including KwaZulu-Natal, in recent years.

South Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV and Aids in the world, with one in 10 people believed to be infected. Earlier this year Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang praised the new government-issued condoms (called Choice), saying they were sexy and fun, and encouraged the youth to use them.

But Nomagugu Ngobese is one of those who believes the answer to the HIV and Aids problem is to promote abstinence.

Ngobese is the founder and chairman of the Nomkhubulwane Culture and Youth Development Organisation, a non-profit body operating throughout KwaZulu-Natal, promoting local culture and conducting virginity tests.

'There is a clash of the new and indigenous religions'
She is also a talk-show host on Ukhozi FM, where on Sunday mornings she presents Izwi Labantu, a programme on cultural and religious issues, and also features regularly on SABC1's religious programmes.

She said the role played by her organisation was important in ensuring young people took responsibility for their own lives.
"Through such programmes we promote abstinence, while empowering young people to talk about sex and also to raise their self-esteem by respecting their own bodies," she said.

She said it was important for black people to revive their social norms and values in the fight against Aids.

"The condom has failed dismally in preventing the scourge of HIV/Aids. We put faith in a condom which was initially made as a contraceptive for married people, and not to prevent the spread of diseases.

"We even have condom dispensers in our schools, encouraging children to have sex, whereas we should be teaching them about abstinence. We are a lost generation which is why we have a dying society," she said.
'Anybody can get raped - a nine-month-old baby or a granny'

Africans, she said, should not sit back and wait for Europe to find solutions to their problems, but should rather be looking for their own solutions, "because we are the ones who are hardest hit by the Aids pandemic". The only way to curb Aids was to teach the youth about sex from the African perspective.

"Now people have become civilised and adopted the new religion (Christianity) and turned their backs on their culture, which is why we have a high rate of HIV/Aids, rape and illegitimate children.

"There is a clash of the new and indigenous religions. In black culture young boys and girls received sex education in puberty. This was part of the process of coming of age. We had our own social norms, but people no longer respect those norms and values."

What started as a small organisation in rural Mpendle in 1994 has spread across the province, from the South Coast to Zululand, and even Gauteng and the Eastern Cape.

Every year in July thousands of young virgins come together in Bulwer in KwaZulu-Natal for the Nomkhubulwane Festival, a celebration of puberty.

This year about 3 000 young girls attended. The provincial Health Department helped with tents, a sound system and support aids like gloves.

Nomkhubulwane is the name of the rain goddess to whom Zulu people prayed to ask for rain during drought, and for thanksgiving after a good harvest. Only virgins were allowed to go the mountain to pray to Nomkhubulwane, said Ngobese.

They had to be pure, so the people's prayers could be answered.

Ngobese is a teacher by profession, but now practises as a sangoma. She did a research paper on the Nomkhubulwane festival for her honours degree at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

The growth of her organisation has not been easy, as there have been many detractors along the way. Some saw the practice as outdated and accused Ngobese of human rights abuse. Others said it made the girls targets of would-be rapists.

"It's sad people criticise our culture like this. But we won't stop; it's been 10 years now and we're still going strong," she said.

Many young girls were being abused at home or by people close to their families and were afraid to talk to their parents about it, she added. The ukuhlola inspections helped uncover the horrific abuse. "There is a communication breakdown between parents and their children. Rape is a huge problem."

She said in some cases five out of 10 girls inspected would have been raped, some not even 10 years old.

Ngobese rebutted claims that the practice made the girls targets of would-be rapists.

"Anybody can get raped - a nine-month-old baby or a granny. People aren't raped because they are virgins, but because of the evil on the rapist's mind. People should also understand the testing is voluntary and the girls are inspected of their own free will. Through this practice the girls have pride in their bodies and are safe from HIV/Aids and sexually transmitted infections," she said.

Nokuthula Shezi, 16, and her best friend, Zama Phakathi, 19, both from Bisley, Pietermaritzburg, have taken part in the Nomkhubulwane Festival for years. Shezi, a Grade 11 pupil at Haythorne High School, started the practice when she was nine.

"People think only rural girls take part and are forced to do it, but they're wrong. I am not forced by anybody."

When asked why it was important for her to be tested, she said, "If you look at what is happening outside there, there's HIV/ Aids and infections and a whole lot of other issues which affect young people. uNomkhubulwane keeps me away from them. Most of all it's about the pride of being a virgin."

Anthropologist Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala of the University of KwaZulu-Natal said virginity testing had its pros and cons.

"Virginity testing will not disappear tomorrow. We are at an age of African renaissance where people are having another look at traditions. It would make sense to look at what people do and care about. Maybe we can use that ideology to fight HIV/Aids," she said.

The testers were trying to raise the status of virginity once again, she added.

"Women should value being sexually inactive for as long as they can, because we have a high rate of HIV/Aids. These days being called a virgin is like being called homosexual and we wonder why. We should look at what was good about (virginity testing) in the past and broaden it." However, she felt the process needed to be modified and upgraded.

A negative aspect of the testing, she said, was that many people saw it as being against the constitution of the country.

It was discriminatory because only women were tested, whereas HIV/Aids affected both.

"What is the responsibility of men in this? They are the other half of the equation. We should also target men if we want to stop Aids." Like Ngobese, Leclerc-Madlala criticised the government for putting more resources into prevention than abstinence.

"There is not much talk about abstinence and in the future there will be even less talk, because now we are talking about the roll-out of treatment for HIV/Aids," she said.

Although the government's HIV/Aids programmes encouraged the ABC (Abstain, Be faithful and Condomise) approach, she said they were doing it the other way round and promoting condoms before abstinence.

Leclerc-Madlala would not be drawn into a debate about the authenticity of the method used during the virginity tests.

"There's a wide debate around that. I think what the testers want to do is instill fear in the girls, so they know that once they have sex, they will be caught and shamed," she said.

Some testers, she added, did internal examinations of the girls while others did external tests, looking for things like sores. She advised South Africa to learn from Uganda's approach to fighting HIV/Aids.

At the recent International Aids Conference in Bangkok, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni told delegates his country had reduced its HIV prevalence rate largely through creative communication campaigns that exhorted young citizens to abstain from sex until marriage and for sexual partners to be faithful.

He said condoms were not the "optimal" solution, but were "better than dying". Uganda, he said, had spent $35-million on HIV/Aids and provided anti-retroviral therapy to the 120 000 people who needed it.

This article was originally published on page 16 of Sunday Tribune on August 29, 2004




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