Virginity Testing

Warning – this post contains material of a sexual nature.

This young lady is an actor, who has played the role of an abused girl.
This young lady is an actor, who has played the role of an abused girl.

Despite the fact that most girls start having sex before they have reached the age of consent, this counts as statutory rape in Swaziland. The law says that girls under the age of 18 are not able to consent to sex. This is confusing, because traditional Swazi custom allows girls to be married at age 12. Occasionally the police send a girl to the clinic with an official request to find out if she has had “carnal knowledge”.

Previous MSF doctors in my role have refused to do virginity testing on principle. They felt it was not their job, it was not in the best interest of their patient and it put them at risk of prosecution. If doctors are aware that rape has occurred, the law states that they are obliged to report it to the police. If they don’t, they could be arrested and charged, although I have never heard of this happening since I have been working here. (In the UK, although the age of consent is 16, no legal action is taken if children aged 14 or 15 are having consensual sex with a similar-aged partner. However, if the child is 13 or under and having sex, reporting is mandatory. And it would also be an offence not to inform the authorities.)

 “That’s different,” say the police. “What we want to stamp out is exploitation of young girls by much older sugar daddies. The girls are naive, they believe that rich, older men really love them. Having a sexual relationship with a sugar daddy seems like their way out of poverty, until they are tossed aside and discarded.”

This blanket refusal had angered the police and soured the relationship between police and MSF. As usual, I take a different view. But I still put the interests of the child first. I interview the girls and make a clinical decision regarding their competency to consent to sex. According to section 33(1) of the Children Protection and Welfare Act (2012):

“If a medical officer believes on reasonable grounds that the child he is examining or treating is physically, psychologically or emotionally injured as a result of being ill-treated, neglected, or sexually abused, he shall immediately inform a police officer or social worker.”

However, it is challenging when I am confronted with angry parents waving an official police form requesting I examine their daughter. “We want to know if she has been raped!” they say. Their daughter usually sits quietly between them, head bowed, avoiding all eye contact. A lamb to the slaughter. Sometimes, they won’t even speak. I interpret this passivity as an “ostrich head in the sand” strategy. “If I don’t acknowledge or participate in what’s happening around me, perhaps it will all just go away.”

A typical scenario is when a sixteen year old girl has stayed out overnight, without her parents’ consent. The parents jump to the conclusion that she has been seeing a boy, and has been sexually active. She is underage, so this is rape, and the boy must be punished.

The first thing I do is to try to defuse the situation. I let the parents have their say, allow them to express their concern and what (ideally) they would like to happen. I take them seriously and don’t argue or challenge them. Then I ask if I can speak to the girl by myself, with my nurse or interpreter. Doctors have such high status in Swaziland that no parents have ever objected to this or insisted on being present when I talk to their daughter.

Using all the consulting skills I can muster, I try to break through the ice and get the girl to trust me. I explain about the limits to confidentiality. We talk about hypothetical situations, so she can avoid telling me outright what has happened. While we are talking, I am assessing her competence, knowledge and understanding. When I am satisfied she can give informed consent, I ask permission to examine her and usually she agrees.

If she refuses to be examined, and I feel she fully understands the possible consequences of that decision, I comply with her wishes. I tell the parents that I consider it would be an assault if I went ahead. This has only happened once. I was told that the police would have to get a court order requesting an examination by a gynaecologist at a government hospital.

However, refusing to co-operate in the investigation of a possible crime is an offence in Swaziland. The police are prepared to prosecute. On one occasion, the police threatened a girl (who refused to be examined) with being sent to a detention centre for young offenders.

If she agrees to be examined, I ask if she would allow her mother to come into the room during the examination. I explain exactly what I am going to do and talk through the stages. I explicitly state that although I will be touching her, I am not going to put anything inside her. Of course, we routinely offer tests for HIV infection and pregnancy, followed by appropriate preventive treatment.

Following consensual, occasional, gentle sex, it is uncommon to see certain signs of penetration. Even the damage following rough sex can heal quite rapidly, showing no definite signs after a few weeks. My report might typically contain the bald statement, “On genital examination, I found no signs of sexual penetration”.*

If there are signs of penetration, I am obliged to include this in my report.

As well as handwriting the police report, I type out my conclusions on a more detailed MSF confidential form, and hand this over to the family. This is what tends to be used in court, if the case gets that far.

Then my real work begins – counselling the family. Together with a psychosocial counsellor, I talk to the family about how difficult adolescence can be for both parents and children. I tell them that I know, I have experience in this matter; my wife and I brought up three daughters.

I say things like, “Your parents would not have brought you here if they didn’t love you.”

And “You are becoming a woman, you want to take decisions for yourself, but with independence there comes responsibility.”

Or even, “Sometimes when you insist that your daughter obeys you, she reacts against it. Being too controlling can have the opposite effect.”

Traditionally, Swazi parents expect blind obedience from their children, and the idea of compromise can be new to them. Doctors don’t spend a lot of time talking to patients here, especially about non-clinical matters. So my attempt at family counselling can come as a surprise.

You may regard my attempts to build bridges between controlling parent and wayward daughter as patronising, but the psychosocial counsellor has said to me, “You are talking as though you really mean it, like you really care. The girl and her parents appreciated what you said.”

This little girl got a present of a cuddly toy for allowing me to examine her. Sometimes bribery is necessary! I like the way her finger is pointing to her head, showing that she is deep in thought whilst making her choice.

There are other ways of assessing virginity. You could take your daughter to a sangoma (traditional healer) who would give you an answer by going into a trance, or throwing some bones into the dust. Or you could ask a gogo. Grannies know things because of their decades of experience.

One mother told me, “I suspected that she was not a virgin because she did not pass urine like a girl.”

What on earth was she talking about?

“She was passing urine like a grandmother,” she said.

And how does a gogo pass urine, as opposed to a maiden?

“Well, when a virgin girl passes urine it is quiet and sounds like piiisssss. But when a gogo passes urine, it is loud and strong, shuusssshhh, and often accompanied by a fart, prrfffttt at the end.”

I discussed this method with the psychosocial counsellors in the office and they all fell about, laughing. They told me that to test for virginity, some gogos make a pile of sand and ask the girl to crouch over it and pass urine. If the stream is single, making one hole in the sand, she is a virgin. If it sprays everywhere, she is not a virgin. “And what does it mean if she farts when passing urine?” I asked. “Oh, Doctor Ian!”

You learn something new every day in this job.



*When someone has been sexually assaulted, but the genital examination is normal, in my report I use the phrase, “There were no signs of sexual penetration, but this does NOT mean that a sexual assault did not occur.” This is a triple negative, I know, but the courts understand this terminology.


At the barber’s again

A colleague and I went to the barber’s this morning. My favourite tonsorial artist had boasted to me that he had customers coming 40 kilometres to have their hair done at his salon, “Nadia’s Fashions”. He said that he only charged 140 Rand for hair colouring – £6.50 – which undercuts (sorry) the hairdressers in the capital. My colleague wanted a touch of red added to her locks, so she was keen to try his services. I have less than a week to go in Swaziland, so I wanted to have one last crop.

Unfortunately, the maestro was fully occupied with my colleague and left my haircut to his younger, less experienced brother. My cut took five minutes. No scalp massage, no shoulder rub, no tip! It is not the worst haircut I’ve had here, but it is close. Not worth the £1.40 it cost me.

I got to meet Nadia, the owner’s daughter, who was watching a video on her dad’s smart phone. She took my money (and my tip) and I took her photograph. She even features on the calendar in the shop.

As we waited for the dye to take, I noticed that some men from the restaurant next door had laid out some corn on the pavement. I thought this was a generous act of feeding the birds. Then I noticed a noose and length of string hidden by the corn. It was a trap! I wondered if pigeon was on the menu.


I won’t embarrass my colleague by posting her photograph here, but in the background I could see the younger brother shaving a man’s head. Huh! He gave him a good scalp massage.


My last walk with the Natural History Society of Swaziland was calm and tranquil. The hills were cloaked in mist and the grass was heavy with dew. We followed a herd of cattle across the hillside, through the bracken.


The Tortoise Head Rock is situated on the north side of Strelitzia Gorge (see previous post). We could have scrambled to the top, but the rock was slippery and the average age of the group must be over 65. Broken bones are best avoided in remote areas.

We turned back and had an early lunch by a grove of tree ferns, close to a small stream. I was already full from eating wild blackberries. I snacked on white fruits from a large strawberry bush. I have a similar plant in a pot at home, but the fruits are small and red. They didn’t taste like strawberries at all.


I spent a lot of time trying to take close ups of tiny flowers and orchids. From a distance, the hillsides look homogeneous, apart from the occasional patch of dagga. But it isn’t just grass; there are hundreds of different plants.

At the end of the walk, some of us climbed a hillock to an old stonewall fort. This gave stupendous views across the landscape. No one is sure who built the fort. Some say it was used as a lookout during the Swazi-Zulu wars. Others say it was more recent, dating from the Anglo-Boer wars at the end of the 19th century.


Outside the dry stone wall there was a patch of bright blue agapanthus. I took some photographs as the clouds rolled in, obscuring Tortoise Head Rock and Sibebe in the distance behind it.

P1110567I have made many friends walking in the Swazi hills. Here’s a team photograph, taken on a timer. I didn’t notice the stick obscuring Catherine’s face (she’s the secretary).

Execution Rock

Each time I drive on the NR3 highway between Manzini and Mbabane, I am distracted by a rocky peak, Execution Rock. It is set apart from the ridge of hills which form the southern rim of the Ezulwini valley. Srinu was impressed by it, too. Here he is posing by Shoprite in The Gables Shopping Centre carpark, with Execution Rock in the background.


It has a macabre past history. Legend has it that miscreants who had been sentenced to death were marched up to the summit and offered the honourable option of leaping to their deaths. If they refused, they were goaded and prodded by spears until they plunged over the cliff. The siSwati name for the peak is “Nyonyani”, which means little bird. Perhaps a reference to the criminals flapping their arms as they dived to oblivion.

For the past eleven months, I have been telling myself that I ought to climb it before I leave. Last weekend was just three weeks before the end of my contract, so it was now or never. Accompanied by two doctors (my new walking buddies, Ann and Yuan), we parked the car by the dam in Mlilwane Game Reserve and set off on the summit trail.


All animals are protected in the Reserve, including Dung Beetles. I have seen two of these creatures co-operating in rolling a ball of manure along a path. I have even seen two males fighting each other over a female. Or it might have been a lump of pooh. But I have never seen a mob of dung beetles getting stuck into a recent pile of steaming shit. I wondered why this particular gnu pat was so attractive. Perhaps because it was fresh and malleable. The beetles lay their eggs in the dung ball and roll it somewhere safe before burying it. They mate underground, depositing their eggs into the dung so their offspring have a first meal ready for them. According to Wikipedia, they are the only non-human creatures known to navigate by the Milky Way. But why do they need an astral signpost to get anywhere?

We had made an early start, but already at 10am it was getting hot. We tramped up the track, enjoying the flowers and birds.

As the path became steeper, shade became rarer. Finally we scrambled up the rocks to reach the top and were rewarded by superb views. To the north west, across Lushushwana River we could see two pointed hills called Sheba’s Breasts. You can’t really make out the resemblance to bosoms from the road, but you can from the summit of Execution Rock. With the eye of faith, you could even imagine the gulleys running down the slope are like stretch marks.


Directly below us was the new US embassy. It is the huge building in the centre of the photograph. The British Foreign Office pulled out of Swaziland completely some years ago, leaving behind just an Honorary Consul. The Americans look like they are in Swaziland for the duration in their “bunker”.


A group of Taiwanese health workers joined us on the summit. We took each other’s photographs, flashing obligatory peace signs and staging pictures where a smiling doctor seemed to be falling over the cliff.

Looking south to the Mhlambanyatsi River and the Mlilwane Dam, we could just make out a tiny white dot which was our car. It took us half as long to get down as it did to climb. I offered to show my colleagues the white-throated bee eater burrows in a dried up donga. Unfortunately, we only saw one bird emerge from the cliff. These pictures are from a previous visit.


On the path back to the car, I wanted to see how much dung the beetles had disposed of. They had all vanished, presumably leaving the rejected leftovers. Or maybe they realised that Dr Yuan might be interested in collecting and drying dung beetles – qianglang (蜣蜋) – to make traditional Chinese medicine, used to cure ten different diseases.


It’s New Year’s Day and I decided to go out with the team to visit patients with drug resistant tuberculosis in the Mankayane area. I knew it was going to be an early start, so I went to bed early but the fireworks at the stroke of midnight woke me up. The driver arrived at 6:45am, which was a bit earlier than anticipated, but it didn’t take long for me to mount up. We picked up the nurse at KeKhosa, by the “Anointed Hands” hairstyle shop by 7am.

The weather was dull and grey, with low cloud over the hills outside Manzini. Our first patient lived a kilometre away from the road, down a rutted track. The view from the homestead was stunning. I suppose if you have a chronic, debilitating illness and can’t get up and about, a beautiful vista might help raise your spirits. While the nurse administered the injection, I chatted to some women chopping firewood. Two boys asked me to take their photograph, so I got them to pose next to the MSF logo on the back of the LandCruiser.

MSF runs the tuberculosis service at Mankayane Hospital. The clinic was closed, but we opened up to inject a patient whose own health centre was closed for the public holiday. I heard her scream when she was injected. Kanamycin and capreomycin are painful drugs to inject. I wondered about mixing the drugs with local anaesthetic, prior to injection. That would not help the initial pain, but it might reduce the discomfort after a few minutes.

The next patient lived some distance away from the hospital, well off the beaten track. We needed a four wheel drive vehicle with high clearance to get to his house. We had to cross a river, which because of the drought, we managed easily. We passed a general store in the middle of nowhere called the “Wonkhe Wonkhe Grocery & Hardware”. The patient’s home was perched on the side of a hill, with another spectacular view. He was feeling exhausted, so he asked me if I would take the horse into the field and do some ploughing for him. When I said that the last time I ploughed was in the 1960s, using a rotivator in our back garden. He offered to teach me, but we had more patients to see.

After leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses received the word of God from a burning bush. Canaan was the “promised land”, the “Land of Milk and Honey” of the Bible. In the village of Cana, just west of Mankayane, MSF supports a community of people suffering from drug resistant tuberculosis in Cana House. It was clean and tidy, with plenty of ventilation. A woman was preparing cook some spirals of sausage on a braai (barbecue) inside the house, so hopefully it would not be too smoky. For dessert, there was a New Year’s Day cake, which would be served with a dollop of thick custard, simmering on a Calor gaz ring.

The residents were delighted to see a docotela. I explained that I worked in Matsapha, but their new doctor, Yuan, has just arrived in Swaziland. I told them the news about their previous doctors, Khin and Srinu and showed them some photographs on my camera. Then the patients wanted their photographs taken. We would have been asked to stay to lunch, but we had to press on and see another patient on the far side of Cana, over the river (Jordan?).

It was interesting to visit the patients in their homes. It puts their treatment in context. The patients were very weak, with some of them not yet responding to treatment, but they were all able to smile and greet me enthusiastically. I think that they were happy that they were not being forgotten, sidelined as failures. They were grateful that someone cared about their welfare and wanted to visit them.

This aspect of MSF’s work is not spectacular and newsworthy, like treating Ebola victims in Sierra Leone, or providing emergency medical care where there has been an earthquake or a tsunami. There are no instant successes. It is a prolonged, tedious slog dealing with the “lepers of the modern world”, suffering from drug resistant TB. It is difficult keeping patients engaged in treatment, often when they are so disheartened and depressed that they feel like giving up. MSF is bringing new drugs to those who most need them and doing the research to find out if shorter, more intense treatment has better outcomes than the traditional regimens. No other organisation in the world is as well placed to do this research. It might not be a face of MSF which is well known to the public, but it is totally in keeping with its humanitarian ideals.

Siyabonga means thank you, in siSwati