This article highlights the intensifying prevalence of sexual violence in South Africa, which affects women including izintombi (virgins, also known as Zulu maidens). Ubuntombi (virginity) traditionally represented a typical identity marker of young-womanhood in the indigenous lives of Zulus. As an aftermath of colonialism and imperialism, the cultural importance of women’s virginity faded into the past with only sporadic survival in some rural areas of South Africa. For some reasons, it was visibly revived together with virginity-testing as public events in the 1980s and 1990s. The practice of virginity-testing was criticized by some scholars, human rights and gender activists, who blamed it for promoting rape of the young women involved. The blame became an undeniably common phenomenon in the early 1990s due to the myth that having sex with a virgin cured HIV infection. However, this empirical study conducted in KwaZulu-Natal through semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions found that izintombi (virgins) refuted the claim. Virgins felt that the 1990s myth could not still be the cause of sexual violence against them since South Africans received education concerning that myth. This study used a postcolonial feminist theoretical lens because the group under study were young women from a formerly colonized Zulu ethnic group. Controversies that surrounded the revival of ubuntombi (virginity) accompanied by virginity testing did not deter its rapid embrace by a number of contemporary izintombi (virgins) as their indigenous cultural practice, heritage, and identity. It is in the practice of this intended choice that izintombi face persistent threats of sexual violence against them. This is regardless of the guaranteed South African constitutional rights to equality and security stipulated in the Bill of Rights. Thus, this article also raises the question of who is to blame for the ubiquity of this violence and how it could be addressed without blaming the sufferers. It further underscores the need for intensified activism by African feminists, human rights activists, and gender activists against the pervasiveness of sexual violence that haunts izintombi.

Author Biography

Goodness Thandi Ntuli is a 2021-2023 post-doctoral research fellow at the University of KwaZulu Natal, supported by NIHSS for this research. She is a former educator in the Department of Education in South Africa and an adjunct lecturer at Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary (SMMS). She is currently an ordained minister in the Anglican Church of South Africa. Her keen research interest is in gender and religion, which includes African feminism, and cultural and women studies. She has further interest in critical identity studies as well as cultural and indigenous research, systematic theology and inter-contextual theological studies.