As often as once a month bare-breasted girls are paraded around their home-town in Africa. They wait to be seen by the elder women of their community and be publicly tested as to whether they are virgins or not.
Seen as a way of life in many parts of the continent, this cultural ritual is used as a way of making sure girls of many ages (starting from as early as 4 months) stay pure before marriage and preventing teenage pregnancy and the spread of HIV/AIDS. If classed a virgin, the women are marked with a colourful dot on their forehead, and sometimes even presented with a certificate.
During testing girls will lie on a mat, legs spread, often outside with a crowd of people around them, and will have an elder woman examine them and announce on the spot whether she is virginal or not. The elder women primarily look for signs such as a ruptured hymen in order to decide on the girl's chastity. There is not any government licensing for a virginity tester, and this raises the question of whether the tester has sufficient anatomical knowledge to judge a girl's previous sexual encounters.
Although the girls are not forced, many girls attribute the popularity to parental pressure. However there are some girls who are proud to take part in the ritual, with tens of thousands being tested ever month.
The testing can sometimes be cause for elaborate celebration, with music, dancing, singing, prayers to ancestors, night-time swimming in the river and the slaughter of an animal (usually a goat).
One of the biggest celebrations of virginity is Umhlana, the annual reed dance. Girls who have recently passed the test or pass at the testing that day are permitted to join in the day-long festivities. Girls who don't, however, are shunned and, although no real action is taken, they are made to feel like they've let down the community, and are not allowed to join in any celebrations, however big or small.
Following the last Umhlana celebration, polygamous King Goowill Zwelithini spoke of his outrage at the photographing of the girls, and the discovery of them in various newspapers and all over the internet. During the event the maidens parade into his palace and each place a reed before him to signify their virginity. No woman wearing trousers is allowed into the palace, with most girls wearing nothing but a few colourful beads and skimpy loincloths. He said "I was shocked, I have no doubt these pictures are going to be used to attack this solemn culture of ours". Solemn is right. Every year hundreds of women are injured in the 25,000 strong stampede.
There have even been cases of women losing their life on the day, crushed to death after tripping over at the wrong moment.
Deputy President of South Africa Jacob Zuma has encouraged girls to take the test, believing that it curbs the spread of HIV/AIDS, and stating that it's African tradition for a woman to value her virginity. He also expressed his concern about abandonment, saying that early pregnancy leads to girls abandoning their babies.
However, the testing does not prevent as much trouble as some say. In fact, it causes a lot more problems and issues than it solves. It's been noted that many young girls are opting for anal sex rather than vaginal to save their virginity, which contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS. Also, as girls are warned away from premarital sex, the use of condoms is discouraged. However, as men are rarely tested girls can easily contract HIV/AIDS from their husbands once they are married.
The tests do not take involuntary intercourse such as rape and other kinds of sexual abuse into account. Girls will often keep encounters like this quiet due to shame.
Perhaps the biggest issue surrounding the testing is the proclamation of virginal status. Girls who pass are clearly marked for everyone to see. There is a tightly held belief by many Africans that having sex with a virgin will cure a HIV/AIDS victim. Many girls are raped after passing the test, which aside from the psychological torment it causes, makes the argument that it curbs the spread of HIV/AIDS completely redundant.
You can't help but see this ritual as another way for a male-dominated society to keep it's stronghold over women. From a ridiculously young age girls watch their mothers, aunts, sisters and friends be objectified and are taught that their purity is one of the most important things in their whole life. Little mercy is shown for those who are deemed (by someone who has no more anatomical knowledge than you or I) to be spoiled, not taking any circumstances or reasons as to why it has happened into account. Men are rarely pressured into saving their virginity until marriage, and rape cases are often blamed on the victim herself. Shame is sewn into the fibre of a girl's being from the moment she is born, and unfortunately in most cases she will know no better for the rest of her life.