Though society expects women to remain virgins until marriage, men test their virility by notching up sexual conquests, writes Fungai Machirori

In Zimbabwe a recent front-page story reported on the case of a 34-year-old Harare man who allegedly raped his 11-year-old sister-in-law because of a long-standing dispute with his wife, the girl's sister, for not having been a virgin at marriage.

In Zimbabwe a recent front-page story reported on the case of a 34-year-old Harare man who allegedly raped his 11-year-old sister-in-law because of a long-standing dispute with his wife, the girl's sister, for not having been a virgin at marriage.

In many cultures, a woman's virginity at marriage is highly valued. But, when it leads to gross human rights violations, one wonders why societies place such great value on virginity, as well as its many cultural and social implications.

Traditionally, social disgrace befalls a girl who is not a virgin when she weds.

As Pathisa Nyathi, a Zimbabwean commentator, notes in the book Traditional Ceremonies of AmaNdebele: "Pre-marital sex among the amaNdebele community was despised. When it occurred, it brought shame to the girl's family. For the girl, it meant she could not perform the bridal dance, and could not therefore give birth to a chief or a king."

Shona traditions have similar patterns of marginalisation.

Yet these practices occur within a contradictory environment. The double standard is that women are supposed to remain pure and ignorant about sex and sexual acts, but men are free to do as they wish.

In fact, society expects men to test their virility and garner as many sexual conquests as possible to prove their manhood. If that is the case, then it surely means that men themselves are deflowering the very virgins they want to marry.

Some traditionalists would like a return to virginity testing to curb sexual activity among young women and, indeed, some chiefs use voluntary virginity testing as part of HIV strategies in their areas - a practice that has raised the ire of many women's groups. A clause in the Domestic Violence Bill now outlaws forced virginity testing.

This is a practice, like any other, that has merits and demerits.

One positive is the sense of pride and achievement that a girl might feel about public recognition as a virgin, and the resulting high esteem held by the elders. However, this same status predisposes the girls to risks of rape and sexual abuse by men who believe that sleeping with a virgin can cure certain ailments.

Moreover, girls found not to be virgins face ostracism and castigation by family and friends.

The desperate pursuit of virginity leads some to almost unbelievable measures.

It is reported that some herbalists sell medicines claiming to "grow back" a woman's hymen, and that some gynaecological procedures can reconfigure a woman's hymen by sewing a flap of skin over her vagina.

Non-virgin girls allegedly even stuff pieces of raw meat up themselves prior to inspection, for fear of failing a virginity test. Other women take pills to induce menstruation so that the all-important traces of blood will appear on the wedding sheets.

However, this preoccupying fear of rejection at not being a virgin runs concurrently and ironically with the fear of being one. Young people especially face this pressure. They have access to international media, music, TV shows, magazines and movies that convey the 21st century message of monetary and sexual indulgence.

In that world, it is "cool" to have sex. On the other side, Zimbabwe's own vital institutions of socialisation - particularly the family and the media - remain worryingly silent on sex.

Of course, with the urgent call to stop the spread of HIV, attitudes are changing. Condom advertisements appear in the local media and some dramas depict HIV and Aids storylines.

The truth is that people are having sex, or how could Zimbabwe record the highest rate of condom use in the world last year? Few believe that anyone is actually abstaining from sexual activity.

Society values virginity.

Some believe that abstinence until marriage programmes, such as those championed by the US government, fuel the spread of HIV because they ignore the importance of condom use for those who cannot wait.

As such, some argue for a holistic approach to HIV prevention interventions that include accepting that not everyone will wait until marriage for their first sexual encounter.

There is no doubt that the decision to have sex should be well-thought out because an individual does not get a second chance.

Finally, I return to the article that began this whole debate.

If someone takes the virginity of such a young child, through no choice of her own, why should she suffer for not being a virgin later in life?

Discourse around virginity and its cultural, social and personal relevance will never end.

It is a shameful injustice when an all-consuming pursuit of another's virginity leads a man to rob a child of her own choice as to when and how she loses this status.

lMachirori is a trainee with the Southern Africa HIV and Aids Information Dissemination Service. This article is part of gender links commentary service.