South Africa’s higher education sector seems to always find its way into the murky waters of controversy. The #FeesMustFall campaign which saw University students protest against the rise of fees is still fresh on the minds of South African students.
Now, a new scene with regards to fees and higher education has emerged. The Mayor of Uthukela district in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, Dudu Mazibuko, imposed a new category of scholarships for young girls who are virgins. Among the 113 students who would receive grants to finish-up their tertiary education, six categories are meant for sexually inactive girls. These awards called the Maiden Bursary Awards began in 2015 but it is yet unclear how many girls received the award as at last year.
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In South Africa, teen pregnancy and HIV/Aids are commonplace. The South African department of basic education recorded about 20,000 pregnancies among girls and young women in schools in 2014, with 223 pregnant girls still in primary school. Also, Medwiser records Kwazulu-Natal as the region with the most infections in South Africa, which on its own is the country with the most HIV-infected people.
With these statistics, the mayor believes that this award will be an encouragement to abstain from sexual activity thereby decreasing the data. The girls who will be awarded will have to go through frequent virginity check ups in order to maintain their scholarship. said,
The spokesperson for the municipality Jabulani Mkhonza told AFP news agency that “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”.
While a student who is on the scholarship told News24 that she did not mind having to abstain or go through the check-ups, and also that the procedure for the virginity check-ups were not dangerous, some women/gender activists have ridiculed the award insisting that the procedure was more like abuse
Palesa Mpapa, legal manager for People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) said it is a “discriminatory practice against girls as boys are never publicly tested for virginity, yet they are parties to the cause for loss of virginity. This practice stigmatizes girls who could have lost virginity through rape or incest.”
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Sisonke Msimang, policy development and advocacy consultant of Sonke Gender Justice iterated that criticisms of the award was not in a bid to decry abstinence. According to her,
“The longer a young person, particularly a girl, abstains from sex, the better, so this is not about suggesting that abstinence is a bad idea. But this type of programme ignores the fact that sexual behaviour of young women are often not on their terms.
“Many young women don’t have sex because ‘they feel for it’, these are often choices out of their hands,” She added.