Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

It is quite possible for women to have sex and get a degree

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Abstinence, healthy sex, and HIV
There are a few things to note about the discourse of this “maiden award” as an anti-HIV effort.

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.

Tags: , , , ,

  • On black excellence: Charlotte Mannya Maxeke
  • A letter to a mother who raised black girls
  • Children shouldn’t have to trade off their identity for a good education
  • My dream was to matter and not be invisible
    • Charlotte

      Excellent article. Sent it through to Pippa Hudson of Cape Talk (Radio 567)who had raised the subject to introduce her program and is in total agreement with you. She read out parts of your article – particularly with regard to HIV infections.

    • sinewe

      I read the article which you are referring to Sir/Ma’am.
      1.Has it ever occurred to you that the main aim of whoever the sponsors of the bursary are, was so that girls, mainly and specifically girls, will refrain from engaging in any sexual activities?
      2. Rape, if you are learned as you sound to be ( apologies if this sounds rude), you will agree that it is a crime. In as much as you may cry victim on behalf it’s victims (Lord , comfort them), it is not and cannot be a basis on which the world must stop! We cannot say that the incentive for a zero accident is 1000 Rands (US$166.70), and then you cry foul because somebody bumped into you!

      3. Unfortunately, it is true that even sport can break the hymen, but mostly penetration. So these people, based on their beliefs (which you are not obliged to attest to), came up with their own project which satisfies what they stand for! It’s like having a Bursary for Catholics, so, as a matter of fact, all non-Catholics will not qualify! Freedom of religion. In this instance it happened to be black traditional KwaZulu Natal practice, but how many bursaries are for Methodist, Muslims etc. ?

      4. Get this, the objective is to create in girls, a focus. They abstain from sex, they concentrate on their books, (have you ever checked the statistics of teen pregnancies in High schools, dropouts as a result thereof, and the correlation between the best students and “morally upright” students?
      Your article has good facts , but you barked at the wrong tree.

    • Hooska

      Welcome to the Dark Ages!! Well intentioned policy, but completely improperly implemented. You can’t test women for virginity anyway. In any case, so what if they have sex? There is absolutely nothing wrong with safe sex. Instead of trying to foster a generation of virgins, the state should take it’s job seriously in terms of educating students about safe sex, teenage pregnancy etc. You can’t attach something like this as a condition to a bursary. It’s insulting and disgusting.

    • RodB

      It’s a great pity that young women have to be subjected to the most intimate of examinations – which in any event prove absolutely nothing – simply because some people hold beliefs that belong back in the Dark Ages.

    • Graham Eddy

      I guess then the next time you go for an operation you will ask the surgeon whether he/she remained a virgin until they qualified? Because if they did not, they were obviously not focused on their career and therefore a lousy surgeon.
      Whether or not you have sex means nothing towards your abilities. It is worrying that this needs to be explained.

    • sinewe

      There is this thing which people do not do firstly before they comment on social matters, whether it is an article or just a comment like yours and mine on an article. We must not forget that S.A is a diverse society. This goes to the extent that the same Bill of Rights being advocated hereof, also allows people freedoms. Freedom of religion, to associate, to affiliate etc. Moreover, we have two groups of people in S.A, the previously advantaged, and the previously disadvantage. In addition to that, we have cultural diversity in S.A, rooted in us (black or white, Indian etc). That’s why Indians may support this bursary, culturally,the girls are given into marriage at the discretion of the parents,(she has to be pure hy!), and then the white girls can choose to be sexually active, be it homosexual or heterosexual, even at puberty age, and all that which the parents can do is give advice, advice and more advice . We are talking about the virgin issue so I will stick with the girls side mainly.

      So, you will find that YOUR SURGEON was a virgin till 30, because maybe she was Zulu, and the teacher next door doesn’t really know if she bled during her first sexual encounter at age 15 because she was dead drunk DIVERSITY. TOLERANCE. WE ARE ONE.!

    • Graham Eddy

      Diverse? yes. Allowed to be unlawful? no.
      Before you throw the Bill of Rights at me, please read this article:

    • RSA.MommaCyndi

      At least one of the girls is 22 years old. Are you really saying that she should have to chose between education and marriage between now and her 27th birthday?
      1. What about girls who do not have virginity testing as part of their culture?
      2. Would you think that a rape victim should now be victimised again by not being allowed to have an education?
      3. It is wrong to have conditions to education. It does not matter what the conditions are, it is wrong. When you have a poor child looking to drag her family out of poverty, it is not right to put conditions on the ability to do so. We did that once, it was called ‘apartheid’, and that was wrong too
      4. The irony is that the better the education, the lower the risk of unwanted pregnancy. You are actually promoting unwanted pregnancies by wanting female children to be denied education. If a girl child has a baby and STILL has the tenacity to excel at school, then she is more focused and determined than any other human on earth!

    • Joseph Mafolo

      I don’t approve of virginity testing but on the other hand I believe that the Devil is happy to see young people engage in premarital sex, before their bodies are fully developed. Encouraging young people to delay having sex is not something out of the Dark Ages. It is the right thing to do. But no virginity resting, please!