South Africa’s Scholarship for Virgins
by Emily Jiang on Friday, February 12th, 2016
A virtue esteemed by numerous religions and cultures around the world, a young girl’s chastity is often encouraged until marriage. Branching away from solely the religious and cultural aspects of this value, many societies, especially in third world regions, now see a girl’s virginity as not only a sign of purity, but also the only sure means of avoiding teenage pregnancy and HIV transmission. In these areas, a young girl’s virginity indicates a promising future for herself and, in turn, a promising future for her society.
South Africa currently has the highest number of people living with HIV in the world: 6 million (69% of all HIV cases worldwide). In the uThukela district of South Africa’s eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, roughly half of pregnant mothers suffer from the disease. The uThukela district also has the highest rate of births to teenage mothers in South Africa—more than 26,000 births per year, according to the most recent figures from 2012.
In response to these disturbing statistics, Dudu Mazibuko, mayor of the uThukela district, has established a scholarship for girls who remain virgins throughout their early schooling. To be deemed eligible for the so-called “Maiden’s Bursary Award,” girls must undergo frequent “virginity testing”: manual inspections performed by female elders in the community. Every year, sixteen virgin girls from the uThukela district will win the college scholarship. Jabulani Mkhonza, spokesman for the uThukela district, explains in an International Business Times article from January 25th of this year: “Those children who have been awarded bursaries will be checked whenever they come back for holidays. The bursary will be taken away if they lose their virginity.”
Mayor Mazibuko says the idea for the scholarship came from the girls themselves, who wanted to incentivize keeping their virginity in order to reach what they thought would be brighter futures. She explains that the student grants are intended to “reduce HIV, AIDS and unwanted pregnancy” among young girls in the uThukela district.
Upon hearing about this virgin-based scholarship, a number of activists and rights groups have condemned the Maiden’s Bursary Awards as invasive and sexist. In a statement to BBC News, Idumeleng Muloko, a representative for the People Opposing Women Abuse in South Africa, deemed the scholarship “a violation of the rights and dignity of the girl child.” She adds, “Virginity testing will never stop the spread of HIV and AIDS.”
The Commission for Gender Equality, an organization supported by the government, also heavily opposes the initiative. “I think the intentions of the mayor are great, but what we don’t agree with is giving bursaries for virginity,” Chairman Mfanozelwe Shozi said to the Associated Press. “There is an issue around discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, virginity, and even against boys. This is going too far.” Furthermore, spokesperson Charlotte Lobe of South Africa’s department of women states that they are investigating the issue and will stop it if they find it violates women’s rights.
With the number of global HIV and AIDS cases on the rise, initiatives like mayor Mazibuko’s could become more commonplace, especially in poverty-stricken areas such as the uThukela district.
In processing this unconventional approach to a societal problem, Mazibuko is addressing an issue that used to be one of morality and culture but is now one of health, education, and even survival. Her method has undoubtedly brought this very human, very immediate issue into the international spotlight.
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