Last week, the uThekela municipality in KwaZulu-Natal announced that sixteen scholarships would be made available for sexually inactive students, as part of a programme called Maiden’s Bursary Awards.
Understandably, women’s rights groups have freaked the flip out, pointing out that there’s a whole host of stuff wrong with this notion.
They have raised the issue that there is no particular link between sexual activity and academic ability, that it silences dialogue around safe sex in a country with a severe HIV infection problem among teenage girls, that it targets only girls and allows boys to do whatever they like, and that it shames girls who legally engage in physical intimacy.
It is patriarchal tosh of the highest order.
But what’s really troubling is this part: Jabulani Mkhonza, a spokesperson for the municipality, told the AFP news agency that “Those children who have been awarded bursaries will be checked whenever they come back for [sic] holidays.”
There are two commonly used methods for carrying out a virginity test. One is a visual examination to assess whether the hymen is intact. The other is called, sickeningly, the “two finger test”, in which the elasticity of the vaginal walls is tested.
Both are extremely fallible and extremely controversial.
Wikipedia doesn’t mince words: “Requiring a female to undergo a virginity test is widely seen as harmful, especially when it is performed on behalf of a government. The practice is seen as sexist, perpetuating the notion that sexual intercourse outside of marriage is acceptable for men, but not for women, and suggesting that a women’s sexual activity should be subject to public knowledge and criticism, while men’s should not.”
Wikipedia goes on to list regimes that have been guilty of this invasive procedure.
One such instance was the forced virginity testing of women protesters in Egypt to assess whether rape claims were valid, which Amnesty International called “nothing less than torture”.
Another was a test – the two finger test – was previously carried out on rape victims in India, but has now been banned as “degrading and unscientific” and “a second assault on traumatised women”.
The Prabumulih district in South Sumatra, Indonesia, carries out virginity tests on girls attending high school annually to reduce promiscuity in the district.
Oh, and in the UK up until 1979, women arriving in that country in order to get married had to submit to such a test – a practice that was quickly overturned after it was revealed by the Guardian.
Unless you are a flaming misogynistic bigot and SADIST, you can’t read any of these instances and think that they are a good idea. And now, South Africa can proudly add its name to the list of nations carrying out this horrific, invasive and cruel practice against young women.
There is also a strong argument to be made, I believe, for forced consent in the South African case. Women who want to succeed academically and have their studies funded have to submit to an invasive procedure (that may or may not involve penetration), that they wouldn’t otherwise participate in.
It’s not for their health, so medical consent falls away. And money is one of the greatest forces of coercion there is. While I am not a lawyer, I am confident that there is something very ethically wrong with this, and possibly even legally so.
There has been an outcry, which is good. I hope that this will result in a rapid cancellation of the Maiden’s Bursary Awards. But even that isn’t good enough. It is clear that there needs to be some sort of emergency intervention at the uThekela municipality, explaining misogyny, women’s rights, consent and discrimination – because these are the chaps in charge, and they’re dealing with a whole lot more stuff that affects women than just dishing out bursaries.