South Africa: #Virginity Testing Must Fall!

South Africa: #Virginity Testing Must Fall!

Date: March 31, 2016
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Durban, 01 April 2016: The popular #FeesMustFall, a radical student movement, has been calling out for free, quality education for all. Yet the movement has been strangely silent on young women being asked to barter their virginity for school fees.

Indeed, many seem to have forgotten about the recent saga of “The Maidens Bursary,” offered to young girls seeking tertiary education on condition they remain virgins.

Dudu Mazibuko, UThukela District Mayor told the media that the programme is meant to encourage girls to remain committed to their education and control the spread of HIV. “As a municipality, it is important that we give incentives to those young girls who have kept their virginity and also to encourage them to study further.’’

These are misguided perceptions – girls should be at liberty to choose abstinence if that is what they prefer, or healthy sexual relationships without fear of stigma or shame. They should be educated about their options to prevent HIV and the bursary scheme should promote good grades and reward merit.

Virginity testing, an age-old cultural practice should be a matter of choice. It is a flawed, traumatising and a sexist practice that should have no bearing on whether or not young women have assistance to further their higher education studies. Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini was the only government official who spoke out against this bizarre, unlawful act of awarding girls bursaries on the basis of their virginity in a statement called “Violating the rights of women and girls will not stop HIV and Aids: The folly of forced virginity testing”. This “maiden’s bursary” initiative ignited debate on young women’s sexual health rights, religious and cultural freedom. However, soon after, there is a resounding silence on this.

The Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) is undertaking an investigation into the matter and is engaging with the Mayor and her municipality on their policy in this regard.  The investigation has not yet been finalised.

Lawyers for Human Rights has also intervened in the matter. The pro-bono organisations says it is “unacceptable to make government bursaries of any sort contingent on ‘virginity’, much less exclusively female ‘virginity’. It may be well-intentioned, but it is a wholly inappropriate and discriminatory policy, especially in a country with high levels of sexual violence where sex is not always a choice, and during a time we have seen how many young South Africans thirst for an affordable tertiary education,” said Sanja Bornman of the Lawyers for Human Rights Gender Equality Programme.

Bornman says they are waiting for CGE to complete its investigation and put forward recommendations.

Meanwhile the granting of bursaries is still taking place and no one is bringing to book government officials involved. They need to be accountable or step down, they have failed to uphold their mandate, respect the Constitution and the rights of women and girls.

The initiative meant to encourage young women to remain pure and focused by awarding 16 young women scholarships for keeping their virginity is a gross violation of women’s rights. Some have argued that the scholarships are important as they promote abstinence, which protects the girls from contracting HIV and encourages them to study.

Gender activists have been advocating for women and girls to be agents of change, free from discrimination and victimisation and imposed cultural ideals. This bursary scheme removes the agency of girls as people who have the right to choose healthy sexual relationships or abstinence without hindrances to educational opportunities. Tying virginity in exchange of education seems fundamentally wrong. As far as the same does not apply to boys, the practise is inherently discriminatory.

We need to organise effective responses, share experiences and knowledge on the complexities of building safer spaces and strengthening our institutions to hold those who police our sexualities accountable not just in South Africa but across the continent. This will also help in the realisation and promotion Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for all.

Many girls have lost their virginity under circumstances like rape. Must they face disqualification since losing their virginity was not by choice? This will further discriminate and isolate them, as they are not “worthy” of this bursary.

The ‘Maidens Bursary” is not a new and isolated occurrence. A similar uproar occurred in 2014 when KwaZulu-Natal’s health department planned to inject 12 female students who headed to study in India on a scholarship with contraceptives.

These campaigns contribute to the sex shaming and slut shaming of young women within society. They do not encourage safe sex, contraception use or promote SRHR. Instead, they encourage a climate of silence around sexual activity, safe sex, consent, SRHR and importantly HIV and AIDS. These are the conversations young people should have to enable their contribution to healthy future generations and harness their voice, choice and control over their SRHR, particularly in a country with such high HIV prevalence.

Abstinence and delayed sexual engagements alone as a policy to prevent HIV will only have limited success. Young women and men also need dialogue, information, and the provision of free contraception as well. This would be a strategic line of policy for the municipality to pursue. A better sex education policy can help young women make informed decisions.

This policing of sex by granting ‘rewards’ to virgins is seriously problematic from a social, health gendered and human rights perspective.

(Oliver Meth is a Social Advocacy Journalist This article is written in his personal capacity as part of the Gender Links New Service).