The president of ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) Bathabile Dlamini has come out firing on all who forced virginity testing and other outrageous cultural practices which she described as harmful and patriarchal on young girls in South Africa.
In a written statement titled “Violating the rights of women and girls will not stop HIV and Aids: The folly of forced virginity testing” – the minister of social development strongly opposed and spoke against cultural practices which encroach on the dignity of women.
She called for a review of a number of these practices including “virginity testing in ukuthwala, widow’s rituals, ukungena (which involves marrying a widow to her late husband’s brother), breast sweeping/ironing, and other practices such as ‘cleansing’ after female circumcision, female circumcision itself, witch hunting and other practices that may be discriminatory, and harmful”.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is one of the harmful cultural practices embedded among the people of Venda community of north-east of South Africa. After eight weeks or less after delivery, the Venda woman who just gave birth undergoes a traditional ceremony called muthuso. Muthuso is a process of cutting the vaginal flesh of the mother by a traditional healer.
This statement was made after the announcement of the virgin Maiden’s Bursary from uThukela District Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal which requires the beneficiaries to go for regular virginity testing at the end of every holiday to make sure that they remain virgins.
However, ANC Women’s League president pointed out that even though the constitution supports some of these cultural practices, it does not mean that they must be carried out with particular reference to those practices that are harmful and degrading.
“Constitutional protection for cultural rights does not, however, give a licence for the continuation of practices of any kind that may seek to continue discrimination and violence against women and girls,” Dlamini writes.
She described using the practice of virginity testing as a means of reducing HIV and teenage pregnancy as misguided. She said they have only created a platform for harmful practices that oppress women.
“The arguments offered by those who seek to defend the practice of virginity testing is that it is a strategy to reduce HIV and AIDS and teenage pregnancy. These arguments are at best misguided and inadvertently provide a convenient screen for a patently harmful practice steeped in patriarchal practices that serve to oppress women.”
ANCWL has repeatedly been attacked for failing to speak out consistently on issues of women’s rights violations, opting instead to always defend President Zuma. But this move will put the ANCWL president in good stead given that this appears to be the most serious stance she has taken on an issue which has been furiously debated for some time now.
“I have used the term forced virginity testing, as there is provision for women over the age of 18 to have the tests done with their consent,” she said.
“This is a grey area that requires debate and discussion. Is it consent or coercion when women and girls can only access bursaries based on them doing virginity tests and passing those tests?
It is quite possible that a good number of these women and girls may in fact be engaging in the risky ‘virginity saving’ practices discussed above to gain access to their bursary in their own country. The fact that this act is being carried out by people in the government makes it seem legal but in the real sense, it is not.