WESSELTON TOWNSHIP, SOUTH AFRICA — In township churches, remote grassy fields, and rural community centers across South Africa, thousands of children are being asked to prove they have preserved what many view as their country's greatest defense against AIDS: their virginity.
The chaste are rewarded with colorful certificates, praise from their parents, and bragging rights in their communities. Each is another small victory in their country's battle with an epidemic that now infects 1 in 10 South Africans, and as many as 1 in 3 in some rural areas.
Until a few years ago, such chastity tests were reserved for Zulu brides who had to prove their purity before their parents and future in-laws settled on a dowry.
But with 120,000 South Africans estimated to die this year of AIDS-related illnesses, and more than 100,000 AIDS orphans here, Zulu leaders began to transform their traditional prenuptial exam into a year-round AIDS prevention program. And thus was born one of the most popular - and criticized - public health initiatives in the nation.
But experts say the tests are not grounded in science. Physicians even admit it is difficult to accurately check for virginity. And it is young girls who are almost exclusively tested by such programs, raising tough questions regarding sexism and civil-liberties violations.
But in a country where nothing seems successful in stemming the tide of new AIDS cases, some people see this as a small step in the right direction - the beginnings of a culture of chastity.
"People here are dying," says Lindani Duma, a fourth-grade teacher in Kwazulu-Natal Province, who organizes virginity testing for 200 to 300 girls each month. "And still, many people here do not believe in AIDS. Or they believe in AIDS, but they don't know how to protect themselves. We are telling them how to protect themselves. We are telling them to abstain from sex."
On a school holiday here in the poor village of Wesselton Township, about 40 girls queue up to prove their chastity. Aged 6 to 21, the girls giggle as they wait for their turn in the makeshift examination room: a tin-roofed, 10-by-10 foot brick building behind the United Church of God.
Once inside, they lie on a thin wool blanket over the dusty concrete floor, and the Reverend F.J. Mabaso's good-natured wife, Catherine, gives them a physical exam.
If the girls "pass," Mrs. Mabaso puts a check mark next to their names in the church's virgin registry. Each emerges from the room to smiles and cheers from their mothers.
"Being a virgin is great," says Florence Zulu, a lanky, self-assured - and "pure" - teenager, after receiving another passing grade. "My mom is very happy and proud of me. My boyfriend is angry. But I don't care."
Some examination sites are so crowded, hundreds of girls wait in line for up to three hours for their turn. No one has precise statistics on how many participate. Government officials and Zulu leaders, however, estimate that tens of thousands are being examined each month.
Teachers informally took up the cause in some schools, counseling chastity and administering virginity tests to their students in classrooms, until the Ministry of Education banned the custom on school property two years ago.
No one yet has conducted an official study of virginity testing's impact. Nonetheless, parents like Josephine Nkabinde praise the tests for creating what has proved elusive in other countries battling AIDS and teen pregnancy - a culture of chastity.
"I tell [my daughter] not to have sex," says Ms. Nkabinde as her 17-year-old daughter passed another exam. "But I cannot follow her everywhere. That is why I am very happy, very proud that she likes coming here."
Although this grassroots chastity movement may appear promising, it has earned the ire of some feminists, AIDS activists, and medical experts. The debate echoes concerns voiced by opponents of abstinence education in Western nations. They say the tradition succeeds in putting raging teen hormones in temporary check by creating a culture of fear. Critics say, chaste boys and girls should be educated about AIDS, condoms, or other sexually transmitted diseases as part of their participation.
But, Mr. Mabaso explains, "We don't tell the girls who are virgins about condoms because if I tell them about it, they will be too curious and try it." Only girls who fail the test hear the Mabasos' condom lecture.
Chastity examinations for boys are rare, though many community leaders are quick to stress that they are no less important. Tornado Judas, a science teacher, performs virginity tests for up to 65 boys each month in Wesselton.
Never mind that there is no scientific method of differentiating between virgin and non-virgin girls, let alone boys. Child-welfare activists fear children, rightly or wrongly labeled non-virgins may face harm.
Rev. Mabaso has started a separate youth group in his church for the sexually active. "We keep those who have had sex apart," said Mabaso. "They should not mix." Increasing reports of parents beating daughters who flunk the exams have given some virginity testing supporters pause and opponents new ammunition.
Publicly labeling girls virgins is also not without danger.
An African folk belief that sex with a virgin can cure AIDS puts virgins here at risk of rape. Already, a few certified virgins in KwaZulu-Natal Province have been attacked by HIV-positive men hoping for the spurious cure. The girls managed to escape.
Some women's rights advocates here maintain chastity testing borders on child abuse. It turns testers like Duma and Mabaso into sex police, they argue. Girls' privacy, dignity, and rights are violated during exams held in public places. The South African Commission on Gender Equality, an arm of the Justice Ministry, will hold a conference on virginity testing in June. A public education campaign to discourage the tradition is expected to follow.
The Ministry of Health shares many of these concerns. However, the sheer magnitude of the AIDS epidemic means health officials can ill afford to alienate any group trying to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS, says Dr. Visu Nhlapho of Pretoria.
So instead of discouraging girls from participating, health officials aim to - like the Zulu leaders themselves - stretch the virginity testing tradition to suit their own goals.
They envision staff from local health clinics lecturing about AIDS, condoms, and other public health issues to the long queues of pure boys and girls awaiting their tests.
Rossllynn Msezane, a boisterous 16-year-old, says:the virginity tests are "not the answer" to the AIDS epidemic. "Girls need to be taught to be responsible and ... to think of their own future.
"Right now, this just teaches them to be virgins, that's all."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society