AIDS in Southern Africa

Virgins, Potions, and AIDS in Zimbabwe

It is a serene Saturday morning at Osborne Dam, in Manicaland, Zimbabwe, and hundreds of men and women are already waiting for the biggest festival celebrating female virginity Zimbabwe has ever seen. The assembled crowd mills about in a constantly shifting sea of color bedecked in festive veils, orange turbans streaked with violet, and yellow boubous splashed with blue. Finally, just as the impatient crowd begins to get restless, Chief Naboth Makoni calls the procedings to order.

The party begins in earnest. Spectators clap and dance, women ululate. Participants celebrate the virgins’ chastity in traditional songs. After a week of being chaperoned by elderly women, the girls are ready for the next challenge: finding a fitting husband. The festival has attracted 5,000 girls. By the time they leave, each will have received a certificate of their virginity.

Chief Makoni revived the traditional festival last year as a means of curbing the spiraling rate of HIV infection in the province. Zimbabwe is among the countries hardest hit by the AIDS pandemic. Today, an estimated 2.2 million Zimbabweans are infected with HIV—about 70 percent of them between the ages of 15-49, or the segment of the population most likely to change sexual partners and further spread the virus.

But Ottilia Chaputsira, a 28-year-old Zimbabwean woman who was forced into an arranged marriage while she was still a virgin, was not celebrating. To her, the festival was more a reminder of past trauma than a celebration.

“My father passed me into marriage to a man who was HIV-positive. I only learned later, when my husband was dying. He told me that he had been told by a traditional healer to find a virgin who was going to help him get cured. He told me he was sorry that he did that to me.”

Chaputsira, who has been living with HIV for the last three years, says people should know that “It’s not only the girl’s virginity that matters most—It’s her whole self.”

“I wish my parents and other people will know what is going on through me. Many of us would want to share a moment like this festival with our parents, but they have to understand that their traditions have betrayed us in most cases.”

For many girls receiving their certificates of virginity at the festival, the challenge now will be to escape Chaputsira’s fate.

Critics of Chief Makoni’s festival worry that men like Chaputsira’s late husband will flock to the ceremony to find a virgin bride to cure them of AIDS.

“We are concentrating on an issue that is not relevant,” charges Joyce Kadandara, a women’s health specialist with the World Health Organization in Harare. “How much have we done for women and girls who have been raped? What is our priority: a viginity test or assisting girls who have been raped?”

Petudzai Nyanhanda, a member of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS’ steering committee, agrees. When asked about the festival’s potential to help fight AIDS in Zimbabwe, she pointedly replies, “Virgin Mary should marry virgin Peter.”

Betty Makoni, director of Girl Child Network, a Zimbabwean nongovernmental organization that works with victims of sexual aggression, puts it in stronger terms: “We would like to confirm to you that girls are under siege from men who think sleeping with virgins cures the deadly HIV/AIDS virus. In this context, virginity testing becomes a harmful cultural practice. Girl Child Network Trust’s position is that [efforts to combat AIDS] should not focus on the vagina, but the whole person: her integrity, empowerment, decision-making, welfare, and capacity for independent thought.”

Chief Makoni dismisses these arguments as “feeble.” He notes that the practice is meant solely to curtail the HIV/AIDS infection rate in a district that he says has the highest infection rate in the country.

“An animal called AIDS has come to destroy our generation and we have found it necessary to reintroduce this practice that was in existence long before colonization,” he told participants at a Harare forum on women and development.

Chief Makoni expects the festivals to encourage parents to keep a shorter leash on their childern. “You must be ashamed of yourself if your daughter does not have a viginity-confirmation certificate, because the whole village will scorn you.”

Perhaps so, AIDS workers retort, but men spread HIV more often than women. And in Zimbabwe, as elsewhere, male infidelity is often explicitly or tacitly sanctioned. In some parts of Zimbabwe, a bride is advised not ask where her husband has been if he spends the night out. Worse, a deteriorating economy and a brutal famine have led increasing numbers of young girls to offer sex in exchange for food.

The odds are stacked against Zimbabwean girls in other ways, too. A recent survey conducted by the Zimbabwe Family Planning Council found that 50 percent of unwed young men and women reported having had more than one sexual partner. Of these, 70 percent percent were boys. Seventy-three percent of girls surveyed reported feeling sad after their sexual experiences because they had been raped or pressured into the act.

Betty Makoni charges that the government and Zimbabwean society at large have not taken reports of sexual abuse and rape seriously enough and that sexual crimes are becoming more common as a result.

She worries the festivals will have a profoundly negative impact on the rights of women and girls in Zimbabwe. “What is the chief saying about those who stole the viginity of girls who might have wanted to be virgins? What mechanisms have we put in place to protect children at risk of falling victim to rape in their own homes, those who have been raped by their fathers, or who become victims of Mubobobo?” Mubobobo is an increasingly popular potion sold by herbalists that can supposedly render a man invisible or otherwise allow him to have sex with a woman without her knowledge. Some customers believe that they cannot contract or spread venereal diseases through Mubobobo-assisted sex.

Peter Sibanda, secretary general of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association (ZINATHA), contests Chief Makoni’s claims that virginity tests are part of traditional Zimbabwean culture. “It was not the norm to test for virginity,” he says emphatically. “Under normal circumstances it was the role of the elderly women to know the status of the girls for entire village. But not to test them.”

Sibanda says he is aware that some traditional healers have been advising patients to sleep with virgins to heal certain ailments, but that it is difficult to track them down. He says the same of doctors prescribing Mubobobo. Sibanda maintains that ZINATHA has no mechanisms in place to determine what advice its members are giving, and that even if it did, ZINATHA would not be able to bring the doctors to justice because of the 1890 Witchcraft Suppression Act (WSA). The WSA, as amended in 1989, criminalizes purporting to practice witchcraft—defined as “the use of charms and any other means or devices adopted in the practice of sorcery”—but also makes it illegal to accuse someone of practicing witchcraft, or to solicit someone to name witches. Since 1997, ZINATHA has campaigned for further amendments to the 1989 law that would narrow the definition of witchcraft to sorcery intended to cause harm, but Christian churches have opposed such legislation.

Women’s-rights groups originally supported the WSA for the protection it afforded women in rural areas who had previously been falsely accused of using sorcery to harm people or crops. Since the rise of the Mubobobo phenomenon two years ago, though, women have been campaigning to amend the act to allow doctors prescribing aphrodisiacs or sex with virgins to be prosecuted.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Eugene Soros.