BY: JESSICA BEUKER
On Friday, Jan. 22, the South African municipality of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) announced that 113 students would receive scholarships to pursue higher education within the country. Sixteen of those scholarships were designated specifically to female students—so long as the recipients remain virgins.
The scholarship program, called Maiden’s Bursary Awards, started a year ago in January 2015. Today, women’s rights activists are speaking out against the program, claiming that it’s an embodiment of “level upon level of patriarchal nonsense, unconstitutional misogyny and mixed-up madness,” according to AlJazeera.
Spokesperson for the municipality, Jabulani Mkhonza, described the scholarships as a way to encourage “girls to keep themselves pure and inactive from sexual activity and focus on their studies.” The young women will be considered for bursaries if they prove they are virgins, and furthermore, those who are awarded bursaries will be checked during the holidays, and the bursary will be taken away if they lose their virginity while enrolled.
One of the 16 women who received a bursary was happy about the new program and did not mind the test, which involved lying on a grass mat while a woman examined her. “They open the vagina and look, but they don’t insert anything in it,” she said to News24. “I have never heard of them getting it wrong.”
One of the benefits highlighted by the program is that it would discourage women from having sex, and therefore reduce the spread of HIV. According to AlJazeera, South Africa is home to the largest population of HIV-positive people in the world, with a staggering 6.4 million people affected. And of those people, women are disproportionately affected. One idea behind the program is that an educational incentive will decrease the numbers of those coming in contact with HIV.
One idea behind the program is that an educational incentive will decrease the numbers of those coming in contact with HIV.
However, this cannot be proven, and all it does in the long run is silence an important conversation surrounding safe sex, consent and treatment of HIV, according to activist, Jennifer Thorpe. She added that, “Only young women and girls are subjected to this practice. Boys are not tested, and hence are not stigmatized or rewarded for their virginity.”
This is only the first issue of a program riddled with problems and discrimination. If young girls are incentivized to remain virgins, then naturally so should young boys. But no virginity check exists for them, which signals two things: that sex only clouds the judgment and morality of women, and men’s scholarly pursuits are not as important and therefore they need no access to financial aid.
A second problem is that it should not matter whether a woman is a virgin or not in regard to obtaining a scholarship for her education. Especially since being a virgin is not necessarily a choice that all women in South Africa have. The program unfairly shames and adds even more difficulty to the lives of women who have been raped or assaulted. An already life-shattering experience is exacerbated by a program that tells these women that their education is less important.
But the most important problem to note—which also happens to be the most-overlooked—is the fact that there is no such thing as an accurate virginity test. The idea that having an intact hymen is equal to being a virgin is completely false. And here’s why.
Naturally young boys should be awarded for their virginity as well, but no virginity check exists for them, signalling that sex only clouds the judgment and morality of women.
First off, the hymen does not “break” or “pop.” It is simply a membrane that surrounds the vaginal opening in the form of a ring of stretchy tissue left over from the formation of the vaginal canal during fetal development. According to the Huffington Post, as women develop, the tissue naturally stretches and wears away through a myriad of things such as inserting tampons, masturbating and physical activity.
In fact, a hymen that completely covers the vaginal canal is an extremely rare medical occurrence and would require an incision in the tissue to allow menstrual fluids to exit the body. So if a “fully intact” hymen is what these doctors are looking for, I’m not sure how anyone is passing this virginity test.
It continues to surprise me that so many countries look to virginity tests to determine the morality or clear-headedness of their women. With literally no scientific backing, these tests are not only useless, but they suggest that women who engage in sexual intercourse are somehow less worthy of things like education, financial aid, and careers involving leadership positions.
Image sources: istock.com