Mission story opens up hornet’s nest of virginity testing and abuse.
A 24-year-old woman has described in detail how she and other girls – some as young as six – were made to undergo virginity tests at the beginning of every term at a Christian mission station in KwaZulu-Natal.
The woman has described how she and other girls at the mission were made to sign a “true love waits” pledge, vowing not to have sex before marriage.
She also claims she was beaten on “innumerable” occasions for misdemeanours such as “looking at boys or passing letters to them”, making a noise, or waking up too late in the mission’s school hostel.
The woman was one of numerous people who have responded to an article published in Femina magazine and The Natal Witness in which another woman – Erika Joubert -described her own experiences and her escape from the mission.
About 50 people have contacted Femina since the article appeared in the February edition, with most callers corroborating Joubert’s allegations.
The Witness has spoken to at least 10 people with personal experience at the mission. All have supported the claims.
Joubert’s decision to speak out has opened a hornet’s nest, with stories emerging of split families, alleged physical and psychological abuse, excommunications and suggestions of sinister business dealings.
A number of people related to leaders of the mission and who have also left confirmed the allegations, but stressed they do not want to go public because they fear for loved ones still living there.
The woman, who asked not to be named, said she decided to speak out because of her anger at the mission’s denials that virginity testing took place. “It is an absolute lie to say that it was only done on request by Zulu parents,” she said.
The woman said she first started attending school at the mission as a boarder in 1986, when she was nine. She said she was expelled in the early 1990s after being accused of falling in love with a man.
Describing the virginity tests, the woman said they took place in a small room that was also used for Christian counselling. The girls would wait in a queue of about 200 before being tested.
“They would call us in after the school holidays. It usually took place at lunchtime on the first Saturday of term, and sometimes continued on Sunday. The boys walking past to the dining-room would see us all queuing.
“We would have to lie on a cushion with our bottoms elevated, our legs open and our knees up. An old mother would wash her hands and open our legs up,” the woman said.
“There was a crew of other women in there – usually about four of them – and they would discuss what they had seen. Then we would be told we could go.”
The woman said she was aware of punishments being meted out to girls thought not to be virgins, but that she had no personal experience of that.
The woman said she was about 10 years old when she was first tested. “But they also tested the girls in class one.”
She said, as far as she understood, virginity testing was not conducted on the white girls at the school, but she could not confirm whether this was a standard policy.
The woman, who was 15 years old when she left the mission, said she never questioned the testing, thinking that it would keep her pure.
“Now when I look back, I feel as if I was invaded against my will. I felt the blows of all this a long time afterwards. These things have a way of catching up with you when you grow up.”
The woman, who now lives in Johannesburg, acknowledges that the mission does do some good work.
“I received a good start in education and the living knowledge of God, but in the process of doing good, a lot of bad was done to me.”
She said the mission leaders would often justify the virginity testing in their sermons to the mission members. “The sermons were often about the evils of prostitution, sex and alcohol. They would say things like how much pride they would take in giving away a bride they knew to be pure. That was how they would put it.”
Responding to the testimony of Erika Joubert, whose story appeared in the Witness earlier this week, the woman confirmed the existence of the “Upper Room” at the mission, where beatings took place.
Asked whether she personally witnessed the beatings, her response was: “I was beaten there myself, a lot of times. On one occasion I was beaten because our choir performed a play about a girl who drank and went to clubs. We used some music from the club scene. Immediately after the performance, we were taken to the upper room and beaten by people from the leadership. They said we had delivered demons into the school.
“I was often beaten, not knowing that I was sinning. I couldn’t escape anything. It could be for making a noise in the dining hall, laughing at someone, looking at boys or passing letters to boys.
“I used to love my sleep, and I couldn’t wake up in time. I was beaten for that too. Many of us were.
“We would go through periods when the preachings were terrifying, where the leaders would tell us that if we were hiding things in our hearts, then God would judge us. They would leave no stone unturned and we were terrified. The result was that kids would confess to the leaders and tell on each other, and then there would be more beatings.”
The woman’s parents still worship at the mission.
“My parents still feel that if servants of the Lord have spoken, nobody can disagree.”
Tjell Olsen, a spokesman for the mission, confirmed late yesterday that virginity testing does take place at the mission, but “only among the Zulu children”.
“It is arranged by the parents of the children who organise for people to do the examinations. The people come to the mission and examine the children there. They are free to do as their culture dictates. We are a multi-cultural mission. We would allow any practice as long as it is not anti-Biblical. We don’t have a problem with it,” Olsen said.
Asked if the children are asked their permission, Olsen said: “The parents are the ones who do the choosing. If the parents don’t ask them, it is their problem.”
Sano Sibisi, a preacher at the mission and a member of the school governing body, said he does not understand “what the problem is with virginity testing, if requested by parents”.
“There will certainly be a few Erikas out there who, when they were at the school, were fully satisfied with it, but who are now saying these things,” he said.
Asked whether he considers virginity testing to be a breach of human rights, he replied: “You are coming from a Eurocentric position in asking about human rights, but become a Zulu and you will understand.
“From our side, we are offended that you are speaking about human rights abuses. This is not an abuse of children.”