State-Sponsored Virginity

By Melanie Smuts

It’s clearly not yet 2016 in the UThukela district in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, where the municipality recently decided for a second year to institute the “Maiden’s Bursary Awards,” which funds 16 women’s tertiary studies, provided they remain “virgins”—that is to say, they are subjected twice a year during their holidays to traditional virginity testing. If they fail the test, they lose the bursary.

This misguided use of the law to address a public health issue exposes the patriarchal attitudes of state organs, represents an abuse of the right to education, and exhibits discrimination prohibited under the national constitution.

Calling All Virgins

Dudu Mazibuko, mayor of the UThukela district of eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, who decided to issue the bursaries, said that the bursaries would help “reduce HIV, AIDS, and unwanted pregnancy” among women and girls in the region. Sixteen of a total of 113 bursaries given out in the district are reserved for female learners who remain virgins throughout their studies and submit to traditional virginity testing. She later reportedly added, “To us, it’s just to say thank you for keeping yourself, and you can still keep yourself for the next three years until you get your degree or certificate,” and that the grants will be renewed “as long as the child can produce a certificate that she is still a virgin.”

But this decision has been subject to public outcry. Sisonke Msimang, a policy development and advocacy consultant for the South African-based Sonke Gender Justice project, described the bursaries as “level upon level of patriarchal nonsense, unconstitutional misogyny, and mixed-up madness.” The South African Human Rights Commission has opened an investigation after receiving numerous complaints.

A Long, Problematic History 

Rewarding virginity has been a tactic used for millennia by parents, prospective husbands, nuns, and schools who have seen it as their purview to control female sexuality. Virginity testing itself has a long and absurd history stretching from ancient Hindu traditions to the United Kingdom as recently as 1979. Under apartheid, the government in South Africa implemented forced contraceptive programs and weekly pregnancy examinations for women of color.

Virginity testing remains a Zulu traditional practice important for certain ceremonies such as the Reed Dance—a long-standing ceremony in Swaziland, which was brought to the region where UThukela is situated in 1991 by the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelentini to encourage abstinence in girls in order to reduce HIV transmission. And it is based on this tradition that the Mayor instilled the same traditional virginity test for the Maiden’s Bursary Awards, saying that “[the practice] existed in Zulu culture for many decades and was thus acceptable.”

Education Incentives For a Public Health and Safety Failure

It is true that districts like UThukela face high rates of teen pregnancy and HIV transmission, but it is also clear that these bursaries won’t fix what lies at the heart of the problem.

South Africa’s high rate of HIV transmission is inseparable from the country having one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world—particularly in KwaZulu-Natal. In the UThukela district alone, there were 648 reported sexual offenses last year. An estimate of actual incidences would be closer to 8,000 if one accounts for national averages on under-reporting. Even if the bursaries could do something about reducing pregnancy and HIV transmission among some girls, it is clear that it will simply create more discrimination for the multitude of girls who face sexual violence.

Creating incentives for virginity is also not an effective public health policy. The mayor is coming dangerously close to suggesting that these girls are to blame for social ills—an attitude that adds to the stigma around HIV and encourages, as gender activist Jen Thorpe describes, “a climate of silence around sexual activity, for fear of being ‘caught’ or labelled as impure.” Similar views have also been echoed by activists who are involved in HIV/AIDS activism: “Combatting stigma has been at the centre of South Africa’s fight against the spread of HIV‚ while abstinence campaigns elsewhere have failed time and again. Educating and empowering of young people to make responsible choices will always be more effective than policing sexualities,”added Jacob van Garderen‚ Director of Lawyers for Human Rights in a public statement on the bursaries.

Contrary to Constitution

It is difficult to think of a more textbook case of state-enabled patriarchy than a program to fund, control, and monitor the chastity of women and, in return, to repackage a fundamental right as the reward and justification for such conduct. The decision is clearly contrary to the progressive constitution of South Africa.

The bursaries discriminate on multiple grounds: it does not require the same test of boys, it does not distinguish between girls who consented to sex and girls who were raped, and it violates the privacy of the girls who must submit to these tests. The bursary infringes upon several articles in the South African Constitution and other legislation such as sections 1, 6, and 14 of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, as well as the right to non-discrimination (both direct and indirect) in section 9(3) and the right to bodily integrity in section 12(2) of the constitution, as excellently detailed by constitutional law academic Pierre de Vos.

In addition, the total lack of comprehension that education is a fundamental right and good, as opposed to a treat to be held out for good behavior, is particularly unfortunate in a time when locally the #feesmustfall campaign has so clearly demonstrated the desperate need for more tuition support.

Virginity and Education Really Have Nothing To Do With Each Other 

Lastly, what is virginity anyway? And what does it have to do with education?

It should go without saying that it is entirely possible for women to be sexually active and get a degree. The two are in fact completely unrelated—just ask any man who has never had to wonder whether his qualification was in some way related to his sexual conduct.

Ideally, these women would live in a world where they can appreciate range of sexual experiences and have many chances to make decisions regarding their own pleasure and preferences. They should have a chance to explore, change their minds, try different things with different people, or try nothing at all. They should be informed and feel empowered by the different health and reproductive choices they have. They should be able to change their minds about sex—all while not having to worry whether these decisions have anything to do with their studies.

Instead they are told that a damaged hymen causes them to be to be sexually “impure” and unworthy of a tertiary education.

It would be laughable if there weren’t 16 lives currently ensconced in this debacle.



Melanie Smuts is a human rights lawyer and founder of Streetlight Schools, a non-profit that creates innovative, high-quality primary schools.

[Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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