Sun, Jan 01, 2006 - Page 17 News List

A women's rights movement in Africa emerges

South Africa's ban on some virginity testing is just one example of the measures being taken to increase fair treatment for women on the continent

By Sharon Lafraniere  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LAMONTVILLE, SOUTH AFRICA

The testing of virginity is a longstanding custom among the Zulu and to a lesser extent the Xhosa.

PHOTOS: NY TIMES

In theory, what happened to 14-year-old Sibongile in this hilly, crowded township outside Durban in November could not happen today -- at least, not legally.

On a broiling Saturday morning, as more than a dozen women looked on, Sibongile joined 56 other Zulu girls outside a red-and-white striped tent. One by one, they lay on a straw mat beneath the tent, one by one, they received a cursory inspection of their genitals by a woman in a ceremonial beaded hat. As the inspector pronounced judgment on the state of their hymens -- "virgin," "nice," "perfect" -- each departed to the excited trilling of the women who were observers.

Until Sibongile lifted her red pleated skirt and submitted to her examination. Near silence followed her out of the tent.

"Only one of them cheered," she said, looking stricken at the determination that she was not a virgin. "I feel very bad because I haven't done anything."

To many Zulus, such virginity tests are a revered custom, one that discourages early sex and, after falling into disuse, has been revived to fight the spread of HIV. But to many advocates of women's and children's rights, the practice is unscientific, discriminatory and -- to girls who are publicly and perhaps falsely accused of losing their virginity -- emotionally searing. This month, their arguments persuaded South Africa's Parliament to ban some virginity testing, with violations punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The ban is an example of how sub-Saharan Africa is slowly but inexorably, enshrining into law basic protections that have long been denied women. But it also hints at the frailty of the movement toward women's rights in the region. Not only is the new law a watered-down version of what was proposed, but few here believe it will curb a tradition so deeply embedded in local culture.

"We will uphold our traditions and customs," said Patekile Holomisa, president of the Congress of Traditional Leaders, a political party in South Africa. "There are laws that passed that do not necessarily have any impact on the lives of people. I imagine this will be one of those."

The story is similar in much of this region: measured by laws and political status, women are making solid, even extraordinary, gains toward equality. Women's-equity commissions are widespread in sub-Saharan Africa's 48 nations. Women are deputy heads of state in at least seven nations and a woman is president of one, Liberia. They hold one in six parliamentary seats, matching the worldwide average.

Women's rights legislation has also been enacted. Swaziland's new constitution, adopted this year, makes women the legal equals of men, able to own property, sign contracts and obtain loans without the sponsorship of a man. Zimbabwe this year allowed women to inherit property from husbands and fathers. Liberia passed a stiff statute against rape, and president-elect Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first woman in modern Africa to be elected a head of state, pledged to enforce it. Last month, a comprehensive protocol on women's rights, ratified by 15 African nations, took effect as part of the African human rights charter.

Even so, African governments are typically much quicker to adopt international protocols than to pass domestic laws. And they are still quicker to pass domestic laws than to enforce them, or to tamper with the unwritten rules -- the so-called living law of custom -- that govern much of rural Africa.

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