On 10 September 2005 thousands of Zulu girls gathered in Nongoma in northern KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Province, to participate in 'Umhlanga', the annual reed dance ceremony celebrating virginity. The traditional gathering took place in the wake of controversy surrounding the soon-to-be-outlawed testing of virgins: the Children's Bill was approved by parliament in July 2005 and, if passed by the National Council of Provinces, the legislation will impose an outright ban on the custom.

Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini lashed out at the government, saying he was opposed to the ban, while traditionalists and other groups vowed to defy the law. Traditionally, although young girls were often tested privately in their own homes, the focus was not on the inspection – there was a high spiritual value placed on virginity, instilled through instruction by older women. After falling into disuse, the practice made a comeback around 10 years ago when the HIV/AIDS pandemic began to take hold. According to Dr Jerome Singh, head of the Bioethics and Health Law Programme at the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the move to prohibit the inspections has exposed the ideological clash between culture and human rights. Critics have argued that the practice violates children's rights: their right to privacy, bodily integrity and dignity.

The Commission on Gender Equality, which has been at the forefront of advocacy efforts to halt the practice, described the test as 'discriminatory, invasive of privacy, unfair, impinging on the dignity of young girls and unconstitutional'. The debate has become politicized. Zulus see this as an elaborate conspiracy to undermine Zulu culture. While in office, former deputy-president Jacob Zuma was reported as having encouraged girls to take the test as a way of curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS and reducing the prevalence of teenage pregnancy. However, by placing sexual responsibility on the girls, virginity testing had ignored the gender dynamics contributing to the pandemic and had become part of the problem: testing failed to address male sexuality and responsibility, and the high levels of gender violence in the country.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.