I was at a karate exhibition in town when my friend, a young Ethiopian female working at the local government Women's Affairs bureau, asked me if I wanted to come to the hospital with her. It wasn't an unusual request, given my involvement in HIV&AIDS issues and the fact that I had been to the local hospital on several previous occasions to speak with doctors and administrators. I asked her what was going on at the hospital, and she replied, "We are having a virgins beauty contest, and the participants must go to get their certificate."
Despite my friend's typically immaculate English, I had to have her repeat her answer several times for me to be sure of what I was hearing. But sure enough, a "virgins beauty contest" was being held in my town, was being organized by a representative of Women's Affairs, was moreover being planned for World AIDS Day, and I was being asked to participate in the planning and support the implementation. Once I had taken this in, I told my friend, gently and privately, that maybe it would be a good idea if the two of us could talk this thing through over lunch in the coming week.
She called me three days later, and we met at one of the local hotels for dinner. I began by asking her, first, to explain what she had in mind for this event. She in turn began with, "Well, so the girls will go to the hospital to have their examination and get their certificate as virgin. Then, once they know their status, it must be kept very, very secret, because if it is known they are virgin, they will be raped. I think we will have to have the cooperation even of the police, the Women's Affairs..." She said it all so casually, as if the risk of these girls being raped was just a logistical trouble that would have to be sorted out in the interest of the all-important promotion of female virginity.
Taking a different approach, I asked my friend about the intended aim and objectives for this virgin beauty contest, what the organizers were hoping to accomplish and how this fit into World AIDS Day goals and themes. She mentioned abstinence and how it was one of the pillars (in addition to partner limitation/faithfulness and condom use) of preventing the sexual transmission of HIV. She also brought up the subject of cultural values, how virginity for Ethiopian women is expected and thus must be promoted and appreciated locally.
This gave us some more substantial ground to build discussion upon, so for the next hour or so, we talked through all the issues raised by this virgins beauty contest. We talked about the subtle but critical difference between sexual abstinence and virginity, that sexual abstinence is (under the best circumstances) a personal decision that can be made at any stage in life, regardless of the past, while virginity tells young women that they have been given something of value that can be held only once, and that can never be recovered once lost. We talked about the context of both abstinence and virginity in Ethiopia, where social and economic inequalities dictate that women often have little control over sexual negotiation, and where, therefore, abstinence and virginity can hardly be seen as the "choice" of women. Moreover, in a country in which women are married as young as age fourteen, typically to men twenty or more years older than them, and in a country in which upwards of 85% of HIV transmission occurs during heterosexual sex, often within marriage, the concept of abstinence as an HIV prevention method begins to lose meaning.
We talked about how the concept of virginity, applied as it is specifically to females, further entrenches women's social disadvantage by enforcing restrictions upon women while completely precluding men from responsibility. While women are expected to remain "pure", with heavy repercussions if they fail to do so (including severe social stigma and near inability to find a husband), men are not held to the same standard and are even implicitly encouraged to be sexually active, as a sign of vitality and masculinity. In relation to HIV&AIDS, a woman who has carefully guarded her virginity until marriage is still left vulnerable to exposure through a husband's unfaithfulness.
We talked technically about the unreliability of the "virgin test" itself. We returned to the risk faced by these girls who publicly declare their virginity, a risk so clear and certain that it was identified by my Ethiopian female friend in her first sentences about the planned beauty contest. We sorted through the images and messages being communicated by placing young women on stage to have their worth determined solely through judgments on their "beauty" and virginity - on front of an audience almost certain to be dominated by men and boys, as the demographic most able to take the time to attend such events.
At the end of our discussions, my friend seemed torn between the principles we had talked about, and the male heads of organizations who were directing her that the event must be one promoting virginity specifically. When we parted ways for the night, she said she would try to speak to the organizers about various concerns, and I made myself available to support and assist her in any way that I could. I didn't hear from her about the event during the next week, and then I left for trainings in the capital and then for my holiday at home.
I wish I could say that our talks were taken back to the organizers of the virgins beauty contest, that they sparked honest and meaningful discussion about gender roles, that new ideas were sincerely considered and women's voices were sincerely heard...but unfortunately, events did not seem to take that turn. My friend's updates on the event, from that time on, became more and more vague, and it became difficult to discern what exactly went on with what took place in my absence. My friend and colleague from VSO, however, attended a "wrap-up" meeting for the contest involving the girls, their parents, and representatives from local government offices and law enforcement, and the discussion she picked up in Amharic seemed to indicate that everything went as planned with the virginity requirement at the forefront.
I further wish that I could tell you this sort of thing was an anomaly, a one-time event poorly conceived and exclusive to the highly conservative area of Amhara, Ethiopia, that I find myself. Recent developments, though, prove otherwise. For one, the local university has begun offering "virgin scholarships", with certificate proof required of applicants. Working with the gender officer at the university, my VSO colleague has put in a formal complaint to administration, related to the disadvantage to women who are married, have been raped, or have otherwise lost their virginity due to reasons utterly outside their control. There is little hope, however, that any result will come of the complaint. In addition, my hopes that the contest was just a product of the ultra-conservative culture of my area were dashed when, while visiting Bahir Dar, one of the more progressive, "modern" cities in Ethiopia, I saw a poster in a local storefront picturing "Miss Virgin Bahir Dar 2008".
As an American woman living in Ethiopia, it has been a struggle for me to pick my battles. Is this virgins beauty contest, for example, a case in which I need to recognize that I come from a vastly different cultural background and concede to the tenets of the culture in which I am living as a guest? Do I need to frame all my concerns and critiques in the context of a "sexually liberated" American society, grant that things are simply different here, and move on in silence? When the lives and safety of women are at stake, as they were with their involvement in this contest, I think silence cannot be held. But what about those small occurrences, those daily annoyances, like the harassing comments from young men in the street on my way to work? Or the man who strokes my hair as he walks past my chair in the café? Can I afford silence in these cases, or by ignoring them, do I implicitly give consent to the social mores that allow men superiority over women that are expected to remain meek and largely powerless? And even if I choose to speak out in those instances, to what extent can I actually promote even the smallest change? Even after more than a year living here, I haven't yet figured out all these answers.
Viewing things more generally, though, I see a major part of my role here as mediating the exchange of ideas between two peoples and cultures, including in the realm of gender roles and rights. For me to be able to demonstrate the example of an empowered, assertive, confident, creative, and dynamic female accomplishing things in the world is deeply significant to me. I believe that change can ultimately only come from within a culture. But I also believe in the power of people relating on a real, personal level, and I believe that the ideas, values, and practices conveyed in that exchange can have lasting impact.
So perhaps my voice did not create tangible change this time around. Perhaps my views were not heard at the levels of administrative power, and if they were, perhaps they were dismissed as merely the crazy liberal views of a crazy liberal American woman, not fit for the culture and context of Ethiopia. But I know my voice was heard by one female Ethiopian friend, and I will not dismiss the importance of that one connection. I, in turn, have learned more about the depth of the struggles faced by women in the developing world, the social hindrances they face and the thinking that serves to keep them in place. The battle still remains, and I believe it is one worth fighting, on behalf of the rights of women in Ethiopia and throughout the world. Perhaps I can take encouragement that even a little headway has been made, and that I can be more informed, insightful, and prepared in my efforts.