A South African mayor last month introduced a new scholarship fund offered only to “virgin girls”, designed to preserve their “purity”. Dudu Mazibuko, mayor of uThukela, an impoverished district in KwaZulu-Natal, granted three year scholarships to sixteen female school leavers with the proviso that they do not have any penetrative sex during their time at university. The girls will be subject to regular invasive virginity testing at the start of every semester and after any breaks. If they “fail” the tests they will lose their bursaries. In addition to encouraging “purity”, the mayor hopes the initiative will reduce the rate of teen pregnancies and STIs, and help the girls “focus on their studies”.
“Virginity tests” are highly controversial and have been widely medically criticised. The tests examine the hymen to determine whether it has been broken, despite the fact that the hymen can be damaged by merely exercising or riding a horse. It also completely disregards non-penetrative sex and victims of rape are also excluded from winning the bursary.
The link being made by the scholarship between sexuality and academic success has been attacked by critics for being regressive and outdated. Also the fact that the onus has been placed solely on female students to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STIs is undoubtedly sexist. Add that to the fact that abstinence only programs simply and statistically don’t work, and the whole idea seems ill-conceived at best.
South Africa has developed a bit of a history of being inept with sexual health crises. Former President Thabo Mbeki denied the existence of HIV/Aids and claimed that deaths due to Aids were instead caused by poverty and malnutrition, a claim that led to the unnecessary deaths of an estimated 300,000 people. Current President Jacob Zuma has hardly improved upon this, admitting that he had knowingly had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman, but erroneously argued that showering afterwards had prevented him becoming infected.
Perhaps instead of pressuring financially strained girls from choosing between their right to an education and their sexual rights, the South African government could focus on widening access to anti-retroviral drugs and encouraging the use of proven methods to reduce teenage pregnancies and STIs – condoms.