I saw an article today that I found extremely worrying. It suggested that 16 bursaries were awarded to female matriculants who underwent a virginity test, and passed. In order to keep these “maiden” bursaries, the women must “remain pure” and undergo regular testing throughout their undergraduate degree. These bursaries are premised on the idea that encouraging women not to have sex will reduce the spread of HIV.
It’s unsurprising that this particular municipality wants to address HIV. In 2011 uThukela District Municipality was identified by the department of health as one of the 10 districts with the highest HIV prevalence in South Africa among women attending public antenatal clinics, with 39% of women found to be HIV positive at the time of seeking antenatal care.
But, strategies such as this are highly problematic in terms of the right to education, the gender discrimination involved, and the problematic norms around sex and HIV that are encouraged by it. I think in order to examine the many layers of what is problematic and wrong about these awards, there are a few things we need to consider.
What does virginity testing entail?
Virginity testing is practised in South Africa, and is most prevalent in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Virginity testing involves the examination of a girl’s vagina and hymen to assess whether the girl remains a virgin. This practice is not founded in medicine, and the belief that all virgins will have an intact hymen is medically inaccurate.
Many girls forced to undergo these tests face negative stigma should they be found to “fail”. This type of testing only considers sex to describe the act of penis-vagina intercourse and ignores the range of sexual practices that take place. Ignoring these many varied practices does a disservice to young women, in that it does not provide the full scope of information on how to enjoy these practices safely.
Only young women and girls are subjected to this practice. Boys are not tested, and hence are not stigmatised or rewarded for their virginity. This practice therefore constitutes a form of gender discrimination, encouraging norms of female chastity in a context where male sexuality is celebrated.
University is still limited to the privileged because of fees
Anyone who pays attention to the news will notice that we have more matric graduates than ever, and the same number of spaces for first-year university entrants. On top of this, university education is incredibly expensive and the minimum initial payment of fees is often far higher than most students or their families can afford. Anyone who has seen the #feesmustfall campaign will know this. Bursaries are a lifeline for many students who would not otherwise be able to afford to further their education.
It is possible, therefore, that many women underwent these virginity tests not out of a commitment to “purity” but because they wanted to study this year, and could not afford to. It is unclear from the article how many women underwent the testing, and “failed” or were found not to be virgins. It is also not clear if all girls who were found to be virgins were awarded a bursary, or whether these were limited to 16.
Sexual offences are extremely prevalent
Another thing you will note from the news and crime statistics is that South Africa has high levels of violence against women. Over 60 000 sexual offences were reported in 2014/15. If the 2012/13 breakdown of sexual offences per group men, women, and children is anything to go by roughly 50% would have been reported by women, 40% by children, and 10% by men.
The incidence of sexual violence in KwaZulu-Natal is particularly high. Since the inception of the Sexual Offences Act in 2007, more than 90 000 sexual offences have been reported, and thus it is the province with the second highest incidence of sexual offences.
|2007/8||2008/9||2009/10||2010/11||2011/12||2012/13||2013/14||2014/15||Total since SOA|
|KwaZulu-Natal||11 129||13 058||12 980||12 480||11 034||10 964||9 889||9 079||90 613|
UThukela District Municipality itself has high sexual offences figures. It covers five local municipalities and one district management area, namely, Indaka Local Municipality, Emnambithi/Ladysmith Local Municipality, Umtshezi Local Municipality, Okhahlamba Local Municipality, Imbabazane Local Municipality, and district management area 23. Within these five municipalities are 16 police stations which in the 2014/15 period reported the following sexual offences statistics
- Amangwe – 36
- Bergville – 57
- Besters – 26
- Colenso – 6
- Ekuvukeni – 82
- Elandslaagte – 14
- Ematsheni – 45
- Estcourt – 29
- Ezakheni – 100
- Ladysmith – 126
- Ntambamhlope – 46
- Upper Tugela – 19
- Van Reenen – 0
- Weenen – 19
- Wembezi – 31
- Winterton – 12
So in the municipality alone last year, a total of 648 sexual offences were reported. Underreporting is also a significant problem, and these figures are only the tip of the iceberg. Estimates vary, but a 2009 Medical Research Council (MRC) study found that only 1 in 13 sexual offences victims reported the crime to the police. If that estimate is correct, more than 8 000 sexual offences occurred in this municipality last year alone.
As with all sexual offences statistics, underreporting is a significant problem. These figures are only the tip of the iceberg. Estimates vary, but a 2009 MRC study found that only 1 in 13 sexual offences victims reported the crime to the police. If that estimate is correct, more than 8 000 sexual offences occurred in this municipality last year alone.
These figures are important for two reasons:
- Many people will have lost their virginity due to a rape or sexual assault and thus may not have had intact hymens at the time of examination. These young women may have thus been stigmatised, or penalised for their “failure” to be a virgin, causing further trauma.
- Sexual offences increase the likelihood of the transmission of HIV. Thus, any efforts to try and address the spread would more effectively be targeted at eradicating gender-based violence, and encouraging safe protected sex than encouraging women to remain virgins when this is often beyond their control.
First, it is not clear that the young women were tested for HIV before undergoing the virginity test. Many children in South Africa were born with HIV following poor public health policy around the provision of anti-retrovirals to pregnant women in the past. As of 2015, according to the mid-year population estimates, almost one-fifth of South African women in their reproductive ages are HIV-positive, with a prevalence rate of 18.99% for women aged 15 – 49.
In addition, as noted above, the risk of HIV transmission is increased during rough sex, and instances of gender-based violence. Thus, some of these young women may already be infected with the HIV virus as a result of this.
Third, this campaign contributes to stigma around HIV. It does not encourage safe sex, or the use of protection. Instead, it encourages a climate of silence around sexual activity, for fear of being “caught” or labelled as impure. It effectively silences conversation around safe sex, consent, and importantly around HIV medication and treatment. Silence around HIV is the opposite of what we need in terms of healthcare policy, particularly in a municipality with such high HIV prevalence.
Finally, abstinence as a policy to prevent HIV will only have limited success. This has been shown around the world. What is needed is dialogue, information, and the provision of free contraception. This would be a more strategic line of policy for the municipality to pursue.
A final thought
The Constitution specifies in Chapter 2, Section 9, that the state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on the grounds of their sex, sexual orientation, conscience or belief. It further states at Section 29 that everyone has the right to further education, which the state must make progressively available and accessible.
What I hope I’ve shown above is that the criteria for these bursaries are extremely problematic from a medical, social, health, and gender perspective. It’s my suggestion that the municipality abandon the requirements of these bursaries, and instead uses the financial resources involved in the virginity testing for:
- Community dialogues around safe sex, consent, and access to HIV treatment.
- Community dialogues around gender-based violence and the need for both boys and girls, men and women, to take responsibility for addressing this issue.
- The provision of contraceptives to members of the community.
It is quite possible for women to have sex and get a degree.