My friends in Zimbabwe inform me that the HIV epidemic has caused many people, even educated ones who claim to be Christians, to resort back to traditional methods of healing.

Usually this means herbs or ceremonies, but there are bad apples in every profession, and some who go by the name of healer/witchdoctor (i.e. detector of spells) are actually sorcerers/witches who offer what the west would call “black magic” to heal this deadly disease.

One of these “black magic” cures is the belief that having sex with a virgin will cure HIV. This belief has been around for a long time:

The myth of the Virgin Cure has a rich and culturally diverse history stretching back to 16th century Europe, and more prominently to be found in 19th century Victorian England, where, in spite of the emphasis on morality, rectitude and family values, there existed a widespread belief, that sexual intercourse with a virgin was a cure for syphilis, gonorrhea, [and other STD’s]. Syphilis, like HIV/Aids, was fatal in its terminal stages. In the Eastern Cape of South Africa, when a significant outbreak of STD’s was spread by troops returning home from overseas after WWII, the Virgin Cure was widely sought among the population.

One result of this belief has been an epidemic of rape against children, even babies, in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Some of these cases are violent rape. More commonly, young girls are seduced into cooperation by threats  or offers of money or food.  In a society where women are obedient to the men in their life, girls often don’t know they can say “no”, and some, facing hunger, willingly go along with the man to get food or money.
Under tribal law, women are legally under the power of their father, husband, or son. This is, of course, to protect them, because in countries without strong law enforcement, a woman has to be protected, and who better to protect her than her family? But the deaths of many parents (from HIV) has left many girls without this protection. As a result, the cultural passive obedience is easily exploited by sociopaths.

One of those actively combating this terrible crime is a local woman, Betty Makoni, who has just been cited by Amnesty International for her work with these girls.
From the Amnesty article:

Makoni, 37, started the Girl Child Network with six girls in 1998. Since then, it has served 500,000 girls of all ages — 3,000 of them have become doctors, lawyers, teachers and other professionals, she says…

As a schoolteacher, Makoni seized upon the idea for a non-profit network to fight violence, especially rape, when she saw that two-thirds of her female students had left school by the end of a year because of rape and other violence, extreme poverty or the HIV/AIDS infection, which affects one out of every five adults, most of them women, in Zimbabwe. By 1999, Makoni had left teaching to devote herself full time to the Girl Child Network, which today has 30 staff members.

Makoni herself was sexually abused at age six by a local shop owner, then lost her own mother three years later to abuse in her own home. She realized that unless attitudes in her country were changed and women began to speak up against violence in the home and the community, the abuse would continue with impunity.

With the collapse of the economy, child rape has skyrocketed in Zimbabwe. Some cases are to cure HIV, other cases by men who see vulnerable girls and want sex with virgins who are less likely to be HIV positive. The result are girls emotionally scarred, physically infected (often the men have several STD’s) and often finding themselves HIV positive.

Makoni not only works with the girls, she has established safe homes for them. She has also been a leader in educating the public on this crime. She has even been jailed for a TV program that allowed several girls to testify on their own rapes ( technically releasing the name of a rape victim is illegal under child protection laws. The fact that some bigshots in Mugabe’s government have been accused may have something to do with it, of course).

There is a documentary film on the problem: Tapestries of Hope.

Their website has stories of these girls LINK.

Makoni is planning to tour the west to raise funds for her Girl Empowerment Villages.

How can you help?

By being aware of the problem.

Pray about it.

Financial help is of course always needed LINK.

Many churches are at the forefront of fighting this scourge and working with women’s groups to empower and protect girls. So you might want to check the website of your own church.

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Finally, although this is about exploiting girls in a country faced with dire poverty and moral anarchy, it should be noted that sexual exploitation of women is a world wide phenomenon. Those thinking it is an African problem need to talk to their local child protection agency.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She writes about human rights abuses in Zimbabwe at Makaipa blog.

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