When the controversial Virgins Bursaries Scheme, sponsored by a local mayor revealed that it would only offer university scholarships to young South African women who are still virgins, countless eyebrows were raised.
Dudu Mazibuko, the initiator of the programme, said in January, the move would help reduce teenage pregnancy and the spread of HIV/Aids as well as widening job opportunities for women in her small municipality in KwaZulu Natal province.
Speaking in February via a counter statement titled “Violating the rights of women and girls will not stop HIV and Aids”, president of ANC Women’s League, Dlamini Bathabile strongly opposed the move, which she said encroached on the dignity of women.
She also called for a review of a number of inhumane practices imposed on women including “virginity testing in ukuthwala, widow’s rituals, ukungena (which involves marrying a widow to her late husband’s brother), breast sweeping/ironing, and other practices such as ‘cleansing’ after female circumcision, witch hunting and other practices that are discriminatory, and harmful”.
Also, gender activists and some political parties slammed the virgins bursaries scheme, with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party describing the programme as “patriarchal and anti-women”.
According to the virgin Maiden Bursary from uThukela District Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal, who proposed the idea, beneficiaries would go for regular virginity testing at the end of every holiday to make sure that they remain virgins. In addition, beneficiaries could lose their scholarships if it was determined that they had engaged in sexual activities.
However, after months of addressing the issue which really saw many people divided, with critics slamming the scheme’s emphasis on virginity as outdated while traditionalists argued it would help preserve African culture, the commission for Gender Equality declared the scheme ‘unconstitutional’.
Speaking on Friday, the commission ruled that the programme discriminated against women because male students were not subjected to the same tests.
“Any funding by an organ of state based on a woman’s sexuality perpetuates patriarchy and inequality in South Africa,” it said in a statement.
An attorney with Lawyers for Human Rights, Sanja Bornman, who welcomed the commission’s ruling also added: “It is not the cultural practice that is the problem here; it is the allocation of state funds on the basis of girls’ sexuality that violates the constitutional protection to equality, dignity and privacy.”
Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) deputy secretary-general, EFF’s Hlengiwe, argued at that time that the choice of being sexually active or not must be made by women. But, in a country like South Africa where educational funding has become difficult and rare, putting up such parameter shouldn’t have come up.
Also, a policy development and advocacy consultant Sisonke Msimang described the virgins bursaries scheme as an embodiment of “level upon level of patriarchal nonsense, unconstitutional misogyny and mixed-up madness.”
Virginity testing for children under the age of 16 was outlawed by the Children’s Act 38 of 2005.