In a study titled Trends, modifications and motivations of ukuhlolwa kwezintombi (virginity testing) among the Zulu in KwaMashu district of KwaZulu Natal between, 1960-2000, T. Magwaza investigates the trends, modifications and motivations of ukuhlolwa kwezintombi (virginity testing) among the Zulu in KwaMashu district of KwaZulu Natal.
Some of the findings of the study reveal that:
It is necessary to note that the resurgence of cultural practices especially in the past decade, seems to emerge out of an environment where communities feel disempowered at socio-economic levels. While there was an expectation that the post-Apartheid South Africa would radically change the lives of the majority of South Africans, the reality has been that the socio-economic system of Apartheid is so deeply entrenched that recovery from the dysfunction of the system will take some time.
The resurgence of cultural practices, therefore has to be viewed in its current context, one, as noted before, where communities find themselves without the means and tools to participate meaningfully in the economic and social development of the nation. According to the Committee on the Status of Women, the practice of ukuhlolwa was revived due to an increase in HIV and AIDS related deaths. This factor is important to take into consideration as we examine the pros and cons of virginity testing. Hardship is often accompanied by a nostalgic and over-glorified view of the past, with people reminiscing about that time as though there were no challenges with those very same practices they are adopting today.
A woman’s virginity was integral to her worth. It should be mentioned that before the 1960s, a woman’s virginity was the measure of her worth in all societies and cultures around the world. A woman known to have lost her virginity before marriage was universally regarded as a ‘loose’ and ‘unworthy’ woman.
It is important to discuss the relevance and necessity of cultural practices as they are conducted today. The practice of ukuhlolwa was partly motivated by families needing to preserve their status and dignity in their respective societies, as well as them receiving the full price for lobola. There are aspects to ukuhlolwa that are worthy of maintaining. For example, it gives opportunity to educate young girls about sex and sexuality. As with most initiation rites, it is a space that should allow the young girls to raise questions and/or concerns and to learn about their bodies and sexual well-being. It provides a platform for the older women to impart their knowledge and experiences, and therefore guide the young girls through the challenges and issues that come with puberty.
However, this same platform also raises some questions insofar as it places young girls at risk of transmittable diseases, undermines the dignity and bodily integrity of the young girls, and reinforces discriminatory social perceptions about women’s sexuality.
Virginity testing is conduct as method of controlling the sexuality of girls. P Kaarsholm writes in a study Moral panic and cultural mobilisation: Responses to transition, crime and HIV/AIDS in KwaZulu National, Development and Change, that ukuhlolwa “is an attempt by men to control women and the elders to control the young”. The practice of virginity testing involves undergoing physical examination by older women in the community to find out whether their hymens are intact. Those with their hymens intact are considered to be virgins.
As with Female Genital Mutilation, practices like ukuhlolwa seek to maintain societal mores about sex by controlling girls and women. Patriarchal societies place a premium on women’s virginity. These same patriarchal societies, however, do not place a similar value on men’s virginity. This incongruity renders women and girls even more vulnerable, as it then becomes their duty to protect themselves against solicited and unsolicited sexual advances from men.
In a country like South Africa, where the incidence of rape of girls and women is high, practices like ukuhlolwa are further problematic as it places the burden on women and girls to behave within the cultural space. These practices are not combined with a similar expectation placed on men, who are typically the ones to violate girls and women. Take these examples. Where a girl lives in a poor household, does she truly have the choice to reject the sexual advances of a male who is prepared to take care of her family’s financial needs? When a girl is raped by a member of the family or someone in her community, does she have the power to stand-up against such a violation without risking alienating herself from her family. Because instances of rape and abuse are as high as they are in South Africa, we cannot treat these as isolated incidents. Traditional practices should elevate the ability of communities to progress and provide safe and stable environments for the young to grow up in. These practices should not further entrench discrimination, indignity and humiliation upon citizens, female or male.
As we adopt certain practices and discard of others, it is important to look at the value of cultural practices and the appropriateness of them in the current context. It should not be enough to say, it was done in 1408 and therefore we are to continue with the practices. In the same way that we accepted that the practices that came with Apartheid system that do not contribute to human development and dignity. So, should we be able to adopt this approach to ‘traditional practices’ that do ultimately do not serve the interest of humans.