Virginity and HIV tests before Marriage
Vimbai, 16, dreads the rebukes and curses that await her at home. While other girls, numbering about 50, sing with voices that exhibit signs of suppressed joy, it's only sobs for Vimbai and several others.
She has failed the virginity test and is part of a procession being accompanied by three elderly women from
the nearby river. Vimbai thinks about the reaction of her parents once they learn about her status and going home becomes the last thing.
Those who have passed the test are carrying branches of green leaves - symbolic that the young women have kept themselves pure and untouched. Elders and family members anxiously await their arrival at Chief Naboth Makoni's kraal, 180 kilometres east of Zimbabwe's capital, Harare.
A feast awaits the girls at Makoni's kraal where they will be conferred with certificates as proof of their pureness. The feast takes place once a month.
But Makoni's unorthodox initiative has drawn the wrath of women's rights group and health workers, to name a few. Not only has Makoni decreed that girls must undergo monthly virginity test. He has prescribed that men willing to marry in his Chieftainship should produce documented proof of their HIV-negative status. This, together with the virginity tests, is part of Makoni's controversial strategy to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Unorthodox and controversial the strategy might seem, Makoni argues it is the only way Zimbabwe can tackle the virus. He says it is unfair for a person living with the virus to marry a "virgin who has tested negative".
Over 2,500 people die every week of HIV/AIDS related illnesses in Zimbabwe, according to statistics from the ministry of health. The country of 13 million people has the second highest HIV infection rate in southern Africa with the leading country being Botswana, its southwestern neighbour.
"So far 4000 girls have been tested on their own insistence," Makoni says. "That's why we demand proof of a man's HIV status if he wants to marry any of these angels."
No matter how Makoni justifies his crusade against AIDS, he has set tongues wagging. Some of his critics argue that anyone can forge a document altering their HIV status. There is also fear of isolation, stigmatisation of those that "fail" the virginity tests whether their results are publicised or not.
In February Makoni was invited by the Zimbabwe Women's Rights Network to their gathering to shed light into his methods. He told the gathering made up of over 70 traditional healers, government officials, church representatives and students that tackling AIDS called for high African moral standards.
He said his attempt to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS was sparked by Zimbabwe's unfortunate position as one of the countries most affected by the virus. Makoni told the gathering that his constituency had the highest rate of infection in the country.
His area is next to the international border that separates Zimbabwe from Mozambique and Malawi.
While justifying the need of valuing traditional norms and values, Reverend Julius Mutungamiri of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe, dismissed Makoni's methods as being harsh to women. He told the February gathering that while Christianity called for chastity before marriage, Makoni's methods only dealt with a single sex: women.
Rudo Gaidzanwa, a University of Zimbabwe Sociologist, urged Makoni to drop the virginity tests arguing that they are no longer regarded in the way they once were, when marriages were confined to people from the same village.
She also questioned girls as the target of Makoni's "experiment" adding that the whole issue was one-sided,
allowing boys to roam while girls were confined to "parental prisons".
"The whole idea of virginity tests does not make sense," said Gaidzanwa. Nevertheless, Makoni says he focuses on girls because "they can be controlled than boys". "Once they are controlled they have the keys to prevent pre-marital sex," he says.
Makoni however fails to explain the risks of HIV/AIDS infections when spouses, some of whom were virgins or tested negative before marrying, start cheating on each other.
Makoni says his area also has the highest number of divorces in the country, which he attributes to the
increasing number of women getting married after losing their virginity.
"In the African culture, a man who deflowers a virgin pays damages to the parents. At the same time a man who marries a virgin pays an extra cow in his dowry," he says.
Makoni adds: "If a young woman is not a virgin she is considered to have less value and this often leads to her being abused by her husband and sometimes results in divorce."
Olivia Masore of the Woman Action Group feels virginity tests are degrading and unhealthy at a time when people in the country have made great strides in equating a girl and boy child equal status.
"Virginity testing leaves a man free to do whatever, without enforcing any similar checks and balances on him, while it strips girls of their dignity," she says.
Another controversy sparked by Makoni is, according to Masore, the ownership of the woman's body. She questions who should have the final say on what a girl wants to do with her body. "Is it her community, her parents or the girl herself? What Makoni is implying here is that the community has more power on any girl born in its midst. Makoni should just change his strategy," she says.
Clifford Munengo, a medical doctor, says failing a virginity test is not ample proof that a woman has had
sexual intercourse. He says a girl's hymen can break due to the nature of its elasticity in sporting activities and when she is tested the old women will tell her that she is not a virgin. "Its only a girl who can tell whether she is a virgin or not," Munengo says.