GIRLS as young as six are being subjected to "virginity tests" in a bid to keep them from engaging in pre-marital sex and getting infected with HIV. The practice, a traditional Zulu ritual, is being used in some schools and communities in KwaZulu Natal province, an area with the highest incidence of HIVAids in South Africa.
Some of the virginity tests are carried out by teachers in schools. Although voluntary, girls are reportedly keen to be tested because they get certificates and receive praise from the community.
The test involves examining the genitals to see if the hymen is intact and checking the nipples, which Zulus believe give an indication of chastity.
Some younger teachers undergo the procedure, too. One 24-year-old, mindful of being seen as a positive role model, passed the test and had her virginity announced in a school assembly.
Tests are carried out either monthly or once a term and wherever there is space. At one of the eight schools in the northern rural area of Osizweni that carry out the tests, Thabile Ngcobo, a teacher who examines girls, said: "There have been times when I have used the school stock room".
Some testing is done outside school at weekend gatherings. At one test, held in the sports stadium at KwaMashu Township in Durban, hundreds of girls in traditional short beaded skirts and bare breasts were examined in the open air, within view of jeering township boys.
In some areas, boys are tested, too. In Osizweni, they are asked to urinate over a thin piece of wire that has been strung a meter off the ground without using their hands. If they achieve this feat, they are considered virgins.
Their foreskins are also examined for texture (hardness means purity) and, curiously, the backs of the knees are checked; prominent veins there are associated with sexual activity. For those boys reluctant to volunteer, watches and plastic tumblers are offered as incentives.
Like so many things in South Africa, virginity testing has a political angle to it. Reclaiming Zulu traditions and values is part of the growing African Renaissance movement, which harkens back to the strict morality and customs of tribal life.
In KwaZulu Natal, where six and eight-year-old girls are regularly being raped in the desperate belief that sex with a virgin will cure Aids, and where most new infection is occurring in people aged 15 to 20, virginity testing appears to be one way of putting social pressure on children to abstain from sex and stay safe.
In the absence of sex education in schools in the province, the old traditions may, believe community leaders, save lives.
But the ANC Parliamentary Women's Caucus and Advocacy Initatives, a human rights organisation, have protested to the KwaZulu Natal education department, which supports the testing.
They say that virginity tests may violate children's constitutional rights because they are invasive and degrading. What happens at home, they ask, after a child fails the test?