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Thousands of Zulu girls gathered outside the palace of their king as part of an ancient wife-choosing ceremony, and were urged to stay virgins in order to protect themselves from AIDS.

King Goodwill Zwelithini has used the occasion to address his subjects on morality/development. His shoulders draped with the skin of a leopard, Zwelithini called on the 2,000 Zulu maidens (10-18) to abstain from pre-marital sex to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS among his people. “Today we are facing a war against AIDS,” the king said, “I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate my appeal to young people, male and female, to abstain from sex until they get married or until they decide to raise their families,” he said.

One in nine of South Africa’s population of around 43 million carries the HIV virus, making it one of the worst affected country’s in the world.

The highest HIV infection rate in the country is in the mostly Zulu state of Kwazulu-Natal, where more than a third of the population is believed to be infected.

The king is the titular ruler of the 6-million-strong tribe. “These maidens that are sitting here, all of them are virgins. I think the whole nation should be proud of that,” Zwelithini said, leaning over a leopard skin-covered lectern.

The spread of HIV/AIDS, drug-taking & promiscuity, reinforced the need for traditional values and unity, he said. Zwelithini, who celebrated three decades of power this year, also called on Africans to launch a drive for self-sufficiency and stand on their own feet independent of foreign aid.

He said farmers should grow more crops to produce both money and food, and drive away a threat of famine that currently hangs over much of Southern Africa. Nomagugu Ngobese, a mother and traditional virginity tester who brought a busload of girls, said the ceremony played a role in freeing young girls from traditional roles. Far from reinforcing stereotyped subjugation, the parade raised girls’ self esteem and enabled them to make their own choices in life.

“The reed dance is one of the most important festivals in our culture as Zulus. It helps girls come together and get that sense of belonging,” she said.

[Reuters, 9Sep02; Abstinence Clearinghouse 10Sept02; 605.335.3643]