Women’s rights activists in South Africa are outraged about the granting of scholarships based on virginity testing. On Sunday, a municipal spokesperson for Uthukela (a city in KwaZulu-Natal province) said Mayor Dudu Mazibuko has awarded college scholarships to 16 young women for remaining virgins in an attempt to encourage others to be “pure and focus on school.” Failing regular virginity tests would mean losing out on the scholarship.
The scholarships focus on young women because they are more vulnerable to exploitation, teenage pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases, said Mazibuko.
Above all is the risk of contracting HIV. According to a 2015 report by Center for Strategic and International Studies, girls in eastern and southern Africa account for over 80% of all new HIV infections. Some 7,000 girls and young women get infected every week with HIV, which is the leading cause of death for females 15-24 years old. For reference, in 2013 Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said that at least 28% of South African girls were HIV positive (compared with 4% of boys).
However, activists are incensed. An online petition to abolish the “Maiden’s Bursary Award” states “Student groups across the country have been calling out for free, quality education for all. Yet right now, women are being forced to give up control of their bodies to access higher education.” It decries virginity testing as “an invasive, flawed, traumatizing and sexist practice,” which “has no bearing on whether or not women should be granted bursaries.”
Indeed, virginity tests have been recognized internationally as a violation of human rights in two U.N. agreements, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture.
Nonhlanhla Mokwenda, Executive Director of People Opposing Women Abuse, said, “That is taxpayers’ money that is being used to violate girls and violate the constitution of South Africa.” The chairman for the Commission for Gender Equality, Mfanozelwe Shozi, thought that the intentions of the mayor were admirable, but said, “There is an issue around discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, virginity, and even against boys. This is going too far.” Virginity testing is not against South Africa’s constitution but it is essential that it is done with consent, he added.
In an op-ed in the Daily Vox, activist Sisonke Msimang blasted the illegal and unscientific nature of virginity tests, and raised the nightmare scenario of a girl being raped and thus failing the virginity test and losing out on the scholarship. She also added, “When you are over 18 having consensual sex is legal and nobody’s business.”
Instead, South Africa should choose much better, non-discriminatory options — including educating about safe sex, supplying free contraceptives, and providing free sexual health counseling.