Don’t laugh off bursaries for virgins

While like me you might disagree with the Uthukela municipality awarding bursaries on the grounds of young women availing themselves to be …

Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya says that the Uthukela municipality’s heart is in the right place and it is grappling with real concerns.

While like me you might disagree with the Uthukela municipality awarding bursaries on the grounds of young women availing themselves to be checked whether they are still virgins, I refuse to club in with those who see the local authority as backward and complete idiots.

For one thing, nothing is ever achieved in a debate where the other party is made to feel that their world view is so silly it cannot be entertained.

The municipality’s heart is in the right place. We cannot continue talking about the face of poverty and of the most afflicted by HIV and Aids being that of a young, black, rural woman, and not seek interventions that are specific to the group most at risk.

Also read: The folly of forced virginity testing

We know from experience here and elsewhere that the key to building a cohesive nation is being open to the paradigms of those who live among us and, even if we still vehemently disagree, acknowledge their right to hold the view or practise the custom insofar as it is within the law and reason, and does not impact negatively on others.

That out of the way, here is why I disagree with the Uthukela municipality’s chastity bursaries.

First, one can be chaste but be the cruellest, meanest person in the world. Stories of clergy who have taken vows of chastity but committed horrendous acts of violence tell us this.

Secondly, the state must stay away from determining what is “moral”. Individual families must determine for themselves what they understand as moral and then pass this on to their children. If the behaviour carries carrots and sticks, it must be for that family to dispense these.

Imagine if a municipality led by the African Christian Democratic Party decided that by virtue of being voted in, this meant the local electorate shared their world view and understanding of what was moral and, based on this, decided that a certain portion of the municipality’s budget would go to born- again Christians?

Imagine if in communities where they hold that all young men should go through the initiation school rite of passage, decided that before one could be allocated a house they had to prove that they were “real” men?

I am sure there would be outrage.

Those in favour of virginity testing often say that those of us who criticise them do not offer solutions. I have sympathy for this view. It is always easier to tear down an argument than to come up with alternatives.

Last week I met a young man in Soweto who told me he had helped set up homework clubs in his neighbourhood. The children are not only encouraged and supervised to do their homework, but are introduced to art. They are taught to play a musical instrument or partake in spoken-word or visual art.

Imagine if this young man was a young woman who lived in Chastity Municipality and needed a bursary to study further. Imagine being told that while she has all the right credentials, unfortunately they cannot locate her hymen.

Municipalities who wish to inculcate a sense of responsible citizenship in the young – as the Uthukela municipality clearly does – should encourage the young to actively do something that benefits them and society (like the Soweto youngster I mentioned earlier), rather than their present tactic, where they are rewarded for avoiding an action – in this case, avoiding having sex.

As things stand, the municipality sends a message that morality is the same as self-preservation.

I have serious difficulties with the view that an act that only benefits the actor and makes no positive contribution to anyone else can be defined as moral.

If the municipality wants youngsters to be moral, it must challenge them to do acts that are universally accepted as beneficial to the recipients, instead of acts whose very morality is open to debate, let alone constitutional scrutiny. It must say that while there are obvious benefits from delaying sexual debut for as long as possible, these young women live in a society desperate for their skills, talents and industry.

If it must encourage chastity, this should not be as an end in itself but the first step in what is the eternal battle between the demands of the flesh and those of the soul. If won by the flesh, this leads to high levels of consumerism, crass materialism, and destructive love for power and money.

By problematising sex and making it a measure by which one’s morality can be determined, we probably create a sexually dysfunctional society where young men think of sex as exotic fruit to be had by fair means or foul, and young women feel unnecessarily dirty because they happen to be in touch with their own sexuality.

As with many other issues facing South Africa, there are never easy answers, but at least the Uthukela municipality has not shrugged its shoulders and thrown up its hands. They have started a conversation and instead of laughing at them, we must congratulate them for doing what they could with what they have. We can all learn from that.

* Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is the editor of The Mercury. Follow him on Twitter @fikelelom

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