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A South African Mayor’s Insulting Scholarship For Young Women

CREDIT: AP Images for Avaaz

People gather near Parliament to highlight the country’s high incidence of rape and call on President Jacob Zuma to take urgent action to address this crisis while Minister of Finance Gordhan presented his budget to Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013.

A South African mayor awarded scholarships to 16 young women for maintaining their virginity — and agreeing to prove it through regular “virginity tests.”

“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,” Dudu Mazibuko, the mayor of the Uthukela district in the south-eastern part of South Africa told a local radio station.

“[A]s long as the child can produce a certificate that she is still a virgin” the scholarships will be renewed, she said.

According to a spokesperson for the mayor, the scholarships recipients will undergo regular virginity tests.

“Those children who have been awarded [scholarships] will be checked whenever they come back for holidays,” Jabulani Mkhonza told the Guardian. “The [scholarship] will be taken away if they lose their virginity.”

The initiative, which was launched this year, is an effort to encourage female high school and university students to “keep themselves pure” according to Mkhonza, but it’s very premise is one that rights’ groups have taken issue with — not least because of it’s use of the maligned practice of “virginity tests.”

Virginity tests themselves are believed to be a form of sexual violation, since they involve ensuring the hymen is intact. The tests are a “gross violation of women’s rights and one that may amount to ill-treatment and torture under international law,” according to the International Rehabilitation Centre for Torture.

Human Rights Watch has said that such testing is often “scientifically baseless” since “‘old tear’ of the hymen or variation of the ‘size’ of the hymenal orifice can be due to reasons unrelated to sex.”

“Virginity tests are incredibly discriminatory and are violent acts committed against girls and women,” Christa Stewart of the women’s rights’ organization Equality Now said in an email to ThinkProgress. “The idea of supposedly ‘rewarding’ virginity in half of the population is extremely harmful. In a country where rape is so high, it could also imply that women and girls must somehow bear the blame for violence committed against them.”

The tests are also an infringement of the right to privacy, which is guaranteed by the South African Constitution, according to Palesa Mpapa of People Opposing Women Abuse, a Johannesburg-based women’s rights organization.

“[T]his is a patriarchal mechanism of controlling women’s sexuality for marriage and it does not link to educational success,” she said in a statement. “It also is a discriminatory practice against girls as boys are never publicly tested for virginity, yet they are parties to the cause for loss of virginity. This practice stigmatizes girls who could have lost virginity through rape or incest.”

Rape is rampant in South Africa, which some experts believe was heightened by the hyper-masculinity that both black and white men assumed under the Apartheid system which dominated the country until 1994.

One in four South African men have committed rape, according to a 2009 study, and nearly half admitted to having raped more than one person. 

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That young women would be inclined to try to guard their virginity despite the threats in order to receive a scholarship might relate to the country’s increasingly high tuition costs.

After nationwide protests last October, South African universities agreed not to raise university fees.

As ThinkProgress reported during the sweeping protests, higher education is out of reach for South Africans, but high tuition costs disproportionately affect the country’s black population, which earns less and lacks access to quality schooling at lower levels. 

UPDATE JAN 25, 2016 2:41 PM

This article has been updated to include a quote from Christa Stewart of Equality Now.

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