The mayor of the Uthukela district in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa has awarded 16 young girls with education grants, provided they remain virgins. Dudu Mazibuko told South African radio station 702: "To us, it's just to say thank you for keeping yourself and you can still keep yourself for the next three years until you get your degree or certificate.'' She added that the scholarship focuses on young women "because they are more vulnerable to exploitation, teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases."
Perhaps most disturbingly of all, the girls will be subjected to virginity tests at the beginning of every school term, and whenever they return from breaks. Their scholarships will only be continued "as long as the child can produce a certificate that she is still a virgin,'' the mayor said.
Leaving all questions of gender equality and women's rights to one side for a moment, let's actually break down what 'virginity testing' might entail. It's not a new concept; countries around the world have subjected young women to various forms of the 'test' for years. Usually, this involves an examination of the hymen. There is an assumption that a woman's virginity can be determined by whether or not her hymen is intact. However, as explained by Sherria Ayuandini in The Independent:
"Any type of virginity test that relies on the observation of the hymen or of the tightness of the vagina is inconclusive, at best, or completely invalid. The belief that it is easier to discern the virgin state of a woman than a man is more of a fable than a scientific fact. Unfortunately, it is a fable that is still widely believed and practised to subjugate women."
Mfanozelwe Shozi, the chairman for the Commission for Gender Equality commented on the scholarships, saying: "I think the intentions of the mayor are great but what we don't agree with is giving bursaries for virginity. There is an issue around discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, virginity and even against boys. This is going too far.''
Many activists have called for virginity testing to be banned in South Africa, labelling it "sexist and invasive." There are those who defend it as a "cultural practice" however, asserting that it "preserves tradition and teaches girls about their reproductive health and HIV and AIDS." Unfortunately, it seems that there is no medical evidence to support such a claim.
Many students are unable to afford the higher education fees in South Africa, thus most rely on grants and bursaries. There were even protests last year by low income students demonstrating against a proposed tuition hike of 10-12%.
Let's hope this entire scholarship programme is re-considered sooner rather than later.