Silver Linings: One Woman Takes On The 'Virgin Myth.' Many Others Perpetuate It.

"This so-called virgin myth, perpetuated by Zimbabwe's traditional healers, has led to the rape of hundreds of girls, according to UNICEF. Some of those victims are too young to walk, much less protect themselves." But there is hope.

Betty Makoni is amazing. Herself a victim of rape - she was assaulted at 6, and told to keep quiet by her mother - she says she realized the "potentially deadly consequence of a woman's silence" when she watched her father murder her mother three years later. And this culture of silence and abuse has helped to facilitate the dissemination the "virgin myth" that's grown apace with the AIDS epidemic. As an adult, Makoni has devoted her life to ending the culture of systemic abuse, and the ensuing shame, that affects so many women in her country.

The virgin myth - a widely-held superstition that sex with a virgin will cure a man of HIV or AIDS (and, pre-AIDS, a range of mortal illnesses; this isn't a new idea)- has led to a rash of child rapes in sub-Saharan Africa (most notably in South Africa) and the ensuing pregnancies and AIDS infections are a little-addressed source of shame for the victims.

Makoni, who says she's seen baby girls as young as one day old raped as a result of the myth, became aware of the scope of its consequences as a teacher. The increasing absences of female students - and what she found when she looked into the cause - led her to found the Girl Child Network (GCN) ten years ago. The GCN started as a support group, a safe place for victims to talk about their experiences without judgment or shame. Now there are 700 GNC clubs throughout Zimbabwe, and their methodology has been replicated in Swaziland, Malawi and South Africa. It's become an important public forum and an invaluable resource - Makoni estimates that the GCN's three "empowerment villages," which provide asylum, medical care and counseling, have helped to rescue some 35,000 girls from abusive sitautions, both "virgin myth"-related and otherwise. Some ten girls per day report rapes; given the pervasive culture of silence, one can only imagine how many go unreported.

While Makoni's amazing work, chronicled in the documentary Tapestries of Hope, is inspirational, it's hard not to fear for the GCN's future: last year, Makoni was forced to leave Zimbabwe for the UK after her life was threatened. She now runs the organization from England in concert with the DOVE project, a domestic violence organization, and is trying to raise GCN's international profile. But while Makoni's relief work is crucial, we wonder how the "virgin myth" - and a culture that allows for its perpetuation - can be discredited: surely hundreds of experiments - i.e., rapes of young girls which have not resulted in the curing of AIDS! - should begin to rob it of its potency?

Worryingly, increasing AIDS education has not stopped the epidemic of child-rape in South Africa; as AIDS rates rise, child-rape stats have risen accordingly. And it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation; as the "virgin myth" proliferates, so too can child and sexual abuse generally, and rising rates of frustration, alcoholism and financial desperation - all on the rise along with AIDS rates - can work in horrifying concert. Depressing? Oh, yeah. And sometimes looking at the systemic nature of the issue, some epic form of cultural headdesk can seem like the only viable option. But if Makoni can keep the faith in the face of its daily reality, the rest of us can profit by her example.

Get Involved: Girl Child Network [Official Site]
Child Rape Survivor Saves 'Virgin Myth' Victims [CNN]
Tapestries Of Hope [Tapestriesofhope.com]
HIV/AIDS, The Stats, The Virgin Cure And Infant Rape [Science in Africa]
Zimbabwe: Profile On Betty Makoni and the Girl Child Network [UNGEI]