Taking child rights back to Stone Age

Ruth Butaumocho Gender Editor

Given increasing cases of child marriages, sexual abuse and rape, openly encouraging virginity testing will expose them to abuse from sexual perverts and men who are always on the prowl looking for young girls to exploit.

The recent call by Buhera South legislator Cde Joseph Chinotimba for the introduction of virginity tests by Apostolic sects to safeguard the girl child from sexual abuse is uncalled for and ill-conceived.

“Let us allow churches to continue virginity tests. I have realised that it is those girls that were constantly monitored who would be married well,” said Cde Chinotimba.

He said this last week while making a contribution to a motion moved by MDC National Assembly member Mrs Priscilla Misihiraibwi-Mushonga, who called for the country to honour two young women who launched a constitutional challenge to outlaw child marriages.

Cde Chinotimba’s utterance is retrogressive and violates the rights of the constituency he seeks to protect by calling for virginity testing. It is akin to stepping on the heels of revolution, because Zimbabwe has over the years taken steps to stop the violation of the girl child by assenting to international and regional legal instruments against the practice.

Such comments are unfortunate as they betray the low level of gender awareness among MPs, and high ignorance of the law.

Hon Chinotimba and others need to know, among other things, that forced virginity testing is in the same evil category as forced marriage and pledging girls and women to appease spirits, female genital mutilation, forced wife inheritance, sex between new daughters-in-law and their fathers-in-law. All these social ills are classified as harmful cultural practices that constitute domestic violence by Section 3(l) of the Domestic Violence Act Chapter 5:16 and condemned as criminal by Section 4 and punishable by the very stiff penalty of a level 14 fine or 10 years’ imprisonment, or both. Legislators like Hon Chinotimba need gender sensitisation as well as basic training in the law so that they can make it better.

The International Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims describes virginity testing as a “gross violation of women’s rights” and one that may amount to ill-treatment and torture under the international law.

Virginity testing is not common and valued in the Zimbabwean culture alone but is done worldwide. The practice occurs across geography, region and race with the same reasons being floated around. It has been recorded in several countries from Egypt to Tanzania, Malawi to India, South Africa to Indonesia and was even reported recently in Sweden.

And the common denominator in all these countries is that all the tests are conducted on women to safeguard family honour, stop early pregnancies and early child marriages. Suffice to say there are no male equivalent virginity tests.

So naturally, Chinotimba’s call is premised on the cultural perception that virginity testing continues to play an important role in ensuring that young women delay their sexual debut, thus curbing unwanted pregnancies, early child marriages, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV and Aids.

Society’s fears are genuine and should be taken with the seriousness they deserve.

However noble as the idea might sound, the problem with virginity testing in itself is that it is unscientific because it is based on two things -the hymen and the mistaken assumption that tightness of the female private part means that it is untouched.

Studies have proved that some women are actually born without a hymen; the hymen can be broken by tampons or sporting activities and equally the hymen does not always rupture after one sexual interaction. With these variations at play, it means that the virginity testing process is flawed and the results cannot be regarded as valid.

The discourse around unwanted pregnancies and STIs in itself perpetuates misogyny. It perpetuates a stereotype that women are the sole carriers of STIs, which further entrenches the stigmatisation and victimisation of those who are infected. This also puts the burden of “purity” on the girl child and not on the boy child, when both should remain pure until they marry.

Given increasing cases of child marriages, sexual abuse and rape, openly encouraging virginity testing will expose them to abuse from sexual perverts and men who are always on the prowl looking for young girls to exploit.

Resultantly, the “certified virgins” will be a target of abuse from HIV positive men under the belief or instructions of traditional healers that they will be cured if they sleep with a virgin.

Encouraging virginity testing for the girls puts the burden of sexuality and reproduction on women, when it should be a shared responsibility. In addition to perpetuating violation of the girl child, such calls for virginity testing for girls make it difficult for women to attain equality in their rights, because every time they try to push the emancipation agenda forward, their efforts are hamstrung by such suggestions.

That women have experienced such retrogression over the years does not mean they should continue to be subjected to this unmerciful proposition that will make their situation worse than it already is.

Our girls need to be empowered to act responsibly on sexuality and reproductive issues and lay bare the consequences should they fail to control their hormonal urge.

Rather than pushing for virginity testing, which violates and traumatises girls, the conversation we should be having with our girls and even boys is that although their bodies might be biologically ready to engage in sexual activity, they are not emotionally ready to deal with the subject.

The young generation should be encouraged and taught the importance of abstinence, in light of problems that emanate from early sexual debuts, if they are divorced from responsibility.

Let us not forget that virginity testing as a cultural practice plays a serious role in justifying patriarchy , something that society through different legislations agitating for gender equality is fighting hard against.

The mere fact that there is a test for girls to prove their “purity” while no such tests exist for boys means that we want our girls to stay pure, while our boys can engage in all forms of sexual exploits. Yet we are the same society that is agitating for an HIV-free generation. How will that be achieved when we are promoting skewed sexual education based on gender and yet expect to get an equal result?

With serious sexual-cross pollination and juvenile delinquency happening these days where young boys are now sleeping with sugar moms old enough to be their mothers, it simply means the “certified virgins” will also become statistics on the HIV chart because they get infected by errant boys.

It is noble for girls to remain pure until they marry, but society should be open to other alternatives of ensuring that girls are not sexually active before marriage. It is not too late to preach abstinence, the moral values of purity and the dangers of HIV and Aids.

Virginity testing should be discouraged at all costs. It is bound up in a complex web of patriarchal social values and questionable logic.

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