Why the ‘Virgin grant’ is unsettling to women’s rights groups in South Africa

Women’s rights activists in South Africa are enraged by the decision of the mayor of the Uthekela municipality, Dudu Mazibuko, to award girls who are sexually inactive in the region bursary grants to cater for their studies in higher institutions. According to municipality spokesman, Jabulani Mkhonza, the Maiden’s Bursary Awards aims at encouraging girls to focus on their education by desisting from sexual activities, thereby keeping themselves “pure”.

He further stated that to ensure that the 113 girls considered remain worthy of the grant, virginity tests would be administered to them upon their return from every holiday, after which they will be given a certificate (proof) to present to the bursary for renewal of their scholarship. If any of the girls is discovered to have lost her virginity, she ceases to be a recipient of the bursary.

This clause generated criticism from the Department of Women who deem the action a “terrible idea”, ridiculous, invasive and undermining to women’s rights. Sisonke Msimang, an advocacy consultant for the Sonke Gender Justice project, termed it to be an unconstitutional mix of the patriarchal and misogynist problems that were inherent in the society.

The People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) group observed that the municipality was using taxpayers’ monies to fund a violation of women’s rights. Activist, Jennifer Thorpe, noted that in addition to violating women’s rights, the scholarship was detrimental to the conversation around safe sex, HIV/AIDS, and effective medication and treatment. An area she suggests that the municipality invests in instead of the degrading notion of rewarding girls for maintaining their virginities.

While the Chairman of the Commission for Gender Equality, Mfanozelwe Shozi recognised the good intentions of the Mayor Mazibuko, he also disagrees with tying such a crucial grant to virginity. Many students in South Africa rely on the government to provide them with university grants, as the #FeesMustFall protests popularly demonstrated. Especially those students who come from poor backgrounds.

In linking university scholarships to an unrealistic quest for purity, the grantors set up an extremely problematic dynamic, which at the most basic level, is flat out gender discriminatory.

Virginity tests remain the subject of debate amongst human rights groups and medical experts who argue that they do not form a substantial basis in determining the virginity status of any female. The practice was forbidden in South Africa in 2007, but certain areas and groups continue to disregard the motion. Most virginity tests are carried out without the consent of the girls in various countries around the world, such as Sweden, Egypt, and India. The World Health Organisation continues to advocate for the abolition of the practice worldwide.

Neither Mkhonza nor Mazibuko have been available for comment on the issue since Friday last week.

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