South African’s deputy president has encouraged young girls to take virginity tests to curb the spread of HIV/Aids and teenage pregnancy.
Jacob Zuma said it was an African custom for a woman to value her virginity. Early pregnancy leads to children being abandoned, he said.
But human rights groups say the practice of virginity testing is a human rights violation.
More than five million South Africans are HIV positive—one in nine people.
Virginity testing is practised in KwaZulu Natal and neighbouring Swaziland, where girls lie down on mats for a woman to check to see if their hymens are intact.
Mr Zuma lamented the erosion of traditional African family values, Sapa news agency reports.
“Girls knew that their virginity was their family’s treasure,” Mr Zuma said speaking at an event near Umtata in the Eastern Cape on Wednesday, where some 40 girls took part in a virginity-testing programme.
“They would only have sex when permitted to do so by their families after marriage,” he said.
The government has often been criticised for not doing enough to combat Aids. Last year President Thabo Mbeki denied knowing anyone affected by the disease, and at one time he questioned the link between Aids and HIV.
The government has now started an Aids treatment programme, but only a fraction of sufferers are getting free drugs.
Traditional leaders advocate abstinence from sexual intercourse, rather than condoms, as the best prevention for HIV/Aids.
Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has urged people to eat lots of garlic and beetroot to fight the effects of Aids.