The Vagina Police does not do the trick

The Vagina Police does not do the trick

Date: January 1, 1970
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In a world that loses its collective rituals as fast as its forests, it is wonderful to find tradition that is not surviving on an artificial respirator or Disney-mashed into a souvenir-selling, tourist fair emptied of meaning. “I was bra-less at the Reed Dance” T-shirts, that kind of stuff.

In a world that loses its collective rituals as fast as its forests, it is wonderful to find tradition that is not surviving on an artificial respirator or Disney-mashed into a souvenir-selling, tourist fair emptied of meaning. "I was bra-less at the Reed Dance" T-shirts, that kind of stuff.

Ceremonies where we can express a sense of belonging, a connection with culture, tradition, faith and nation, meet spiritual and emotional needs. Think of the raw energy and devotion of a crowd at World Cup soccer final, a bullfight in Spain, carnival in
Brazil, a papal funeral, Hadjj in Mecca, a Tibetan procession.

Or Umhlanga, the reed dance in Swaziland, one of Africa’s most spectacular pageants, celebrated at the end of August. In the eight-day ritual, some 20 000 unmarried and childless girls cut reeds to re-thatch the Queen Mother’s palace, ending with a colourful parade. A smaller reed dance took place in northern South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal recently. Umhlanga is rich with layered meanings and conflicting interpretations, not mutually exclusive.

The prude and the lewd focus – for wildly different reasons – on nudity. The girls wear traditional attire, which means colourful accessories, and little more. Bare breasts and bums peek from under the bright tassels and beaded micro-skirts. Missionaries and like-minded people are shocked.  Locals aren’t.

The hyper-eroticism of breasts is a Western construct, popularised by Western media. Many AIDS-related surveys on male sexuality in Southern Africa report that thighs are the sexiest female body part. After one such survey, a condom distributor in Malawi redesigned its product’s packaging; a photo of cleavage gave way to thighs.

The media, though, is fixed on boobs. Those pics are sure to sell. Headline writers have a field day: "Just breastfeed your eyes"; ‘Nipples: another section in full swing"; "A maiden with an itchy thigh is attended to by Princess Sikhanyiso," are samples from the ineffable Times of Swaziland.

Some critics deplore the dance as a "flesh market". Well, they should go to Clifton beach in Cape Town; or to trendy beaches anywhere in the world.  Just imagine the pandemonium at an all girl’s high school in your town if hotties Orlando Bloom and Will Smith were to visit looking for a date.

And how many teenage girls do you know who are not self-defeatingly self-conscious of body shape and body fat, who are comfortable with their bodies in public? It must be good for girls’ self-esteem to feel admired and valued as they dance for the Queen Mother, the King, and his warriors.

It would be best if they had equal rights with men: Swazi women are considered legal minors under traditional and civil law.

If Umhlanga has much that is positive for girls, virginity testing – promoted at the South African reed dance – does not. This practice, nearly extinct, resurfaced as AIDS prevention about 10 years ago in KwaZulu-Natal. The government is about to ban it by
law in a Children’s Bill.

In this crude, public gynecological exam, some testers do not wear gloves, for lack of money or hygiene notions. Some do – one glove only to test dozens of girls. A certificate is given, a fee charged.

If there is a hymen, the reasoning goes, the girl is a virgin and HIV-free. Wrong. Some girls are born without a hymen; some stretch it during childhood play; some have naturally a large opening. Some girls keep it intact by resorting to thigh sex or anal sex, which is far more dangerous for HIV infection.

Girls who fail the test are cast as wayward, sinners, or traitors to the culture. What about raped girls, when a staggering 40 percent of rapes in South Africa are of minors?

Virginity testing puts the onus on girls, while boys, at their circumcision initiation ceremony, are taught that manliness means having lots of sex, sexual partners and children.

It is disingenuous to argue that virginity testing is OK because girls like it. Girls like lots of silly things, like wearing tongue rings, chewing bubblegum stuck for weeks under their bed, and watching "Passions".

Peer pressure is so powerful. In Senegal, a grassroots campaign against female genital mutilation, driven by village mothers, imams and chiefs, is succeeding. Still, some girls who were spared the "cut" request it in high school because their friends have it and men demand it.

In 2001, to reduce teenage sex, the Swazi King imposed Umcwasho, a traditional five-year ban on sex with unmarried girls. To show chastity, the girls wore woolen tassels, blue and yellow for under-18, red and yellow for over-18. Men who had sex with them were fined one cow. King Mwsati III paid the fine after betrothing two under-age beauties during the ban.

This year, Umcwasho was lifted and the tassels burnt before the reed dance. Did it help?

Some girls found it useful to fend off unwanted advances. Others ignored the ban. Like every AIDS prevention strategy – abstain, delay, be faithful, condomise, reduce partners – each suits some people at some stage.

Data from antenatal clinics between 2002-2004 shows a decrease in HIV infection among pregnant girls aged 15-19 from 33 percent to 29 percent, as well as a decrease of teenage pregnancies from 30% to 24 percednt. The reductions may be due to Umcwasho, to anti-AIDS campaigns, or (the first) may fall within the statistical margin of error. No one knows.

Let’s assume Umcwasho and virginity testing does reduce teenage sex. Is this preventing infection or just delaying it? Look at the statistics. In Swaziland, in 2002, HIV infection was highest at 47.7 percent among pregnant women aged 20-24. In South Africa, a 2003 survey found the highest prevalence of 24.5 percent among women aged 20-24, compared to 7 percent among girls 15-19.

What do women do in their 20s? They get married and have babies, not necessarily in that order.

In the South African survey, by age 19 more than one-third of girls reported having been pregnant. This jumps to 72 percent by age 23. At some point, girls go from No Sex to Risky Sex. The No Sex lessons should include Safe Sex.

Reducing unsafe teenage sex is a good idea. The Vagina Police is not because the key to reducing HIV infection is in the head, not between the legs.

AIDS prevention is about changing values and choices of both women and men. Sticking an intrusive finger into a girl’s private parts does not do the trick.

Mercedes Sayagues is a freelance journalist. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

Swaziland survey: 8th Sentinel Survey 2002, Ministry of Health
South African: Reproductive Health Research Unit at Wits University for Lovelife, 2003

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