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02/25/2016 01:02 pm ET

South Africa Is Giving Scholarships To Virgins. Here’s Who’s Fighting It

Activists are working to end the regressive, body-policing program.
The scholarship comes at a controversial time for higher education in South Africa, as students across the country prote
RODGER BOSCH/Getty Images
The scholarship comes at a controversial time for higher education in South Africa, as students across the country protested tuition hikes.

A new scholarship program in South Africa's Uthukela municipality, in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, awarded college funds to 16 girls last month for remaining virgins.

The girls will have to submit to "virginity inspections" twice a year to hold on to their scholarships. 

Activists and officials in South Africa have slammed the program as regressive and misogynistic, and the Commission on Gender Equality is leading an investigation to shut it down.

"The program is sexist, it discriminates and it's against the founding provisions of our constitution," Javu Baloyi of CGE told The Huffington Post. "It puts girls at risk of being abused or alienating them due to their status."

The scholarship has been dubbed the "maiden bursary," and has been staunchly defended by Uthukela Mayor Dudu Maziboko. She says the scholarship will help girls to keep themselves "pure" and focus on their studies, and went on South African radio to say that she would consider girls who have been raped for the scholarships. 

Isaac Mangena of the South African Human Rights Commission told HuffPost that the group received several complaints about the controversial scholarship, concerning girls' rights and women's equality.

The country's Democratic Alliance party filed a complaint that the "invasive practice strips young women of their dignity, freedom of privacy and choice, and instills in them a fear of being ostracized and embarrassed for their personal choices, or unfortunate circumstances such as rape."

CGE is currently in talks with Mayor Maziboko and is in the middle of an investigating the constitutionality of the program. Baloyi could not comment further, since the investigation is already underway.  

Virginity testing involves the examination of a girl’s vagina and hymen to determine whether the girl has had intercourse. Not all virgins have intact hymens, so the test is inaccurate at best, and of course, boys cannot be tested for virginity.  

Maziboko claims that virginity testing has been part of Zulu culture for decades so it's acceptable to include it in the scholarship program. Testing became particularly prominent in the 1990s when King Goodwill Zwelithini launched the tradition of a "reed dance" performed by virgins, to promote abstinence during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But the tests have done little to cut rates of HIV infection and teenage pregnancy. South Africa currently has 6.3 million people who are HIV positive -- the most in the world -- and the KwaZulu-Natal district has the highest HIV prevalence in the country. 

A South African activist, Jennifer Thorpe, argued in the Mail & Guardian that discouraging women from sex would do little to fight HIV, and would stifle important conversations around safe sex, consent and treatment. 

"What is needed is dialogue, information and the provision of free contraception. This would be a more strategic line of policy for the municipality to pursue," she wrote.

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