A South African mayor has defended her controversial policy of offering university scholarships to female students if they can prove their virginity and keep it for the duration of the study period.
The mayor of the uThukela municipality, Dudu Mazibuko, who introduced the “Maiden’s Bursary Awards” said it makes good sense and is not meant as a judgment on those who are ineligible.
“The scholarship is not a reward but a lifelong investment in the life of a girl,” she said. “We are also not condemning those who’ve made different choices because we accommodate them in other scholarships.”
The mayoral council offers more than 100 scholarships, 16 of which have been given to virgin female students.
“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,” Mazibuko said, “as long as the child can produce a certificate that she is still a virgin.”
One young woman who received such a scholarship is 18-year-old Thubelihle Dlodlo, who defended the conditions of the award. She is required to undergo regular virginity tests but says she does not mind.
In Zulu culture, virginity testing is a common practice and is performed by elderly women.
“Virginity testing is part of my culture, it is not an invasion of my privacy and I feel proud after I’m confirmed to be pure,” Dlodlo told the BBC.
She said that remaining a virgin is her only chance to get an education because her parents can’t afford to send her to school otherwise.
South Africa suffers from a very high incidence of both HIV infections and teen pregnancies, with an estimated 6.3 million people in the country who are HIV-positive and some 20,000 pregnancies among girls and young women in schools in 2014. Rewards for sexual abstinence are seen by some as a partial remedy for the problem.
Community leader Dudu Zwane, affectionately known as “Mum Dudu,” devotes herself to urging young girls to abstain from sex, both as a means to stay healthy and a way to stay focused on academics.
“It’s very important for these girls to focus on their studies and stay away from boys,” she says.
The 58-year-old retired nurse gives talks on abstinence at schools and also conducts virginity tests on young women.
“The social standing of young women who remain virgins increases and many girls take pride in their results after being tested,” she said.
But human rights activists say these tests are intrusive and criticize making sexual purity a condition for an opportunity for education, especially when it only affects women.
“What is really worrying is that they are only focusing on the girl child and this is discriminatory and will not address problems with teenage pregnancy and HIV infection rates,” said Palesa Mpapa of People Opposing Women Abuse.
“It’s not only the girl that is to blame,” she said.
Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini also questioned the merits of virginity testing and its ties to a patriarchal culture.
The practice “complements other harmful practices such as female genital mutilation,” she said.
South Africa’s department of women said they had heard reports of the scholarship program and would be looking into the matter.
“We don’t support anything that undermines the rights of women. If these details are true, we would definitely find it objectionable, and engage with the municipality to resolve it,” said spokeswoman Charlotte Lobe.
But Mayor Mazibuko is implacable in her resolve.
“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.”
She hopes to find a way to rise above the controversy swirling around the practice.
“We gave the bursaries for 2016 a while ago. We are now in consultation with the community and from those consultations will come a way forward,” she said.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome