Who will stand up for South African women?

Last week’s “maiden bursaries” scandal — an example of institutionalised … Critics have rightly pointed out that the uThukela municipality’s bursary …

“I am proud to be a virgin. I did not know it could open so many doors for me. I did not know I could get something out of it.”

Last week’s “maiden bursaries” scandal — an example of institutionalised patriarchy and sexism in SA writ large — has justly generated significant heat and light in the media, in addition to a number of complaints to the South African Human Rights Commission. It has also generated any number of absurd justifications for the reprehensible practice of ukuhlola — inspecting the vaginas of teenaged girls to check for the presence, or absence, of an intact hymen as proof of “virginity”.

Last week was also a salutary reminder that being a woman does not exonerate one of sexism; sadly neither does having a fine and noble name, as uThukela district municipality mayor Dudu Mazibuko so ably demonstrated in a string of interviews with domestic and international media. Hiding behind her gender and her culture, Mazibuko described how the local government she leads has now moved into the area of sexual policing in exchange for money.

Her justification for subjecting women to regular virginity testing as a bursary condition was chilling in its nonchalance: “Young girls are more vulnerable,” she said. “They are the ones that fall in love with sugar daddies, get diseases and fall pregnant and then their lives are messed up.”

Critics have rightly pointed out that the uThukela municipality’s bursary policy is a violation of these girls’ right to privacy, that it constitutes state-sponsored sexual assault, and that it discriminates unfairly against students on the basis of gender by targeting young women, while ignoring the sexual histories of young men.

But one of the more malevolent consequences of policies and practices linked to “virginity testing” is that they normalise the concept of women’s sexuality as currency from a very early age.

Teaching girls that what is between their legs (rather than between their ears) is what has value when considering whether they are worthy of support for their academic aspirations is precisely what makes them vulnerable to male predation. As far back as 2001, Human Rights Watch identified young South African girls of school-going age as particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse, exploitation and harassment by figures of authority such as teachers and taxi drivers on the school run.

Its report led to a parliamentary investigation in 2002 that found that teachers were committing 33% of sexual assaults against schoolgirls. And, as recently as 2014, a Wits Law School and Cornell Law School study found that “sexual violence persists in schools with disquieting regularity”.

A recent episode of the popular reality TV show, Our Perfect Wedding, brought wider attention to the casual frequency with which predatory older men abuse young girls, when a former taxi driver described how he would “go back to work until the ‘after school rush’ was over and (I’d) take a school girl home with me”.

Our society teaches girls from an early age that their sexuality is a favour, gift or form of currency that may be exchanged, stolen or given to powerful figures of authority in their communities.

And it grants impunity to the predators who subsequently abuse them by claiming that the girls had a responsibility to keep themselves “pure”.

Cultural practices and government policies that turn sex into currency are precisely what will ensure the unrelenting spread of HIV-Aids, the persistence of sexual violence, and the continued marginalisation of South African women — all contrary to their stated intentions.

Such policies also exploit the poverty and desperation of families who will do anything to provide for their children. Witness the Port Elizabeth parents fighting school closures in their city, one of whom recently asked, “If our government can give bursaries to virgins, my eight-year-old daughter who is still a virgin, why can’t she get bursary? What do children in KwaZulu-Natal have that our children don’t?”

Once the embarrassing international media reporting on this issue has died down and the human rights commission is in the thick of its investigations, will South Africans stand up for the millions of young women whose desperation for opportunity is exploited by predatory men and a patriarchal government? It is time for us to end the tip-toeing around the dreaded issue of culture, even as its antiquated practices violate the letter of the law and the Constitution, and upend the principle of gender equality. We should put aside our discomfort and stand up for the most vulnerable and forgotten members of our society.

Mazibuko is a resident fellow of the Harvard Institute of Politics and former parliamentary leader of the DA

This article first appeared in Business Day