Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

Virginity bursaries: Weighing the pros and cons

By Nandisa Tushini

The recent outrage over the bursary scheme that seeks to fund those who can prove their virginity – the “maiden bursary” – is controversial but not without its merits. Despite some support from young women, many organisations such as People Opposing Women Abuse, Lawyers for Human Rights, feminist groups and even the ANC Women’s League have been up in arms opposing this scheme, claiming it is illegal, discriminatory and against human rights.

In her defence, Mayor Dudu Mazibuko of uThukela Municipality says virginity testing has been practised for decades and keeps young children from engaging in sexual activities, prevents sexually transmitted infections and early pregnancies. Valid and legitimate claims if we lived in a society that respects and adheres to traditional African values in general, or Zulu standards of behaviour, values and morals in particular (even if it were just Zulu people adhering to it). It is therefore important to contextualise the mayor’s remarks.

The context: Umuntu, abantu and lobolo
I, for one, am a firm believer in African morals and traditions because I believe that it is a system that is able to create what we call umuntu. Being umuntu is not just about being a human in the biological sense. It encompasses having and living certain values, having consideration for other people, respecting those who are, those who have been and those who will be. It involves an understanding that your actions and behaviours have consequences on your family, ancestors, neighbours etc. Becoming umuntu is hard work and requires one to be in a society that respects this notion and raises its citizens to be abantu.

This type of person would consent to practices such as virginity testing for their self, their children, and even their relatives because it is part of the communal value system. It is not an uncommon occurrence to adhere to these standards. In this type of society, virginity is not only a symbol of wealth, it is testimony to one’s commitment to the standards and virtues by which umuntu is created. Virginity is a symbol of wealth for the price of lobolo that a woman’s family will receive at the time of marriage and a symbol of fertility.

More than 300 virgins marched in protest in the city of Pietermaritzburg on July 14 2005 against the passing of the Children’s Bill approved by the National Assembly. The Bill prohibits virginity testing of girls younger than 16 but permits the practice as prescribed for consenting girls older than 16. The protesters called for the practice to continue as it and integral practice of their custom and tradition. (Rajesh Jantilal / AFP)

More than 300 virgins marched in protest in the city of Pietermaritzburg on July 14 2005 against the passing of the Children’s Bill approved by the National Assembly. The Bill prohibits virginity testing of girls younger than 16 but permits the practice as prescribed for consenting girls older than 16. The protesters called for the practice to continue as it and integral practice of their custom and tradition. (Rajesh Jantilal / AFP)

Remember the reed festival? These maidens are considered pure enough to plead with God for rain – and the ones who celebrate first fruits. The place of a maiden is extremely important in these communities and anything that preserves women as such is considered to be beneficial to the community. I say all this to bring context to Mayor Mazibuko’s assertions. The commitment to traditional African values, and Zulu practices in particular, is not strange. However, if not well thought out, it can be very problematic.

The problem: Danger and violence
KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) is a province that prides itself for having a diversity of people, cultures and heritage. It is therefore very unfortunate that it is notorious for its violence and crime. KZN is reported to have the third highest total sexual offence crimes in the country, contributing to an alarming 16.90% for the 2014/2015 financial year. The cases that are reported barely reflect the offences that do happen. And this is not taking into consideration the fact that most children (boys and girls) are sexually abused in their own homes by fathers, stepfathers, uncles etc. This shows us the extent to which sexuality is not in the control of an individual. This, for me, is the Achilles heel of the “bursaries for maidens” project.

It is my assertion that in a society where one is not certain of their safety, and more especially the safety of their virginity, one cannot be expected to use their sexuality to bargain for a bursary.

Can we keep our virgins safe?
We need to give value for value, and when we barter ourselves for an ideal that we may or may not even believe in (but need the money), then at the very least our safety must be guaranteed.

The safety of maidens is traditionally provided by men in the community. But men now have jobs. They can’t protect their women and children. Police cannot be present all day. Myths that sleeping with a virgin will cure HIV and Aids compound the problem. Traditional values are often binding and can create umuntu, which we need more of, but our society has radically changed, with many old values falling through the cracks. We must therefore be careful how our message is sent. Unless we can ensure the safety of these women, we do not have any business singling them out. Exposing maidens, our wealth in Zulu culture, to sexual offenders, like sugar daddies, is potentially dangerous and irresponsible.

This leads to the question of what happens when one loses her virginity while holding the bursary. Does it get taken away? What if she is sexually assaulted? What if she was not sexually assaulted but has to lie in order to keep the bursary? If education were free and fair, then our bodies would not be the price that we pay for an education.

Presumably, the women who have benefitted from these bursaries are already going for virginity testing, which presumably means that they and their families have consented to the practice. I personally do not have a problem with that. What is a problem is that many women are already kicked out of that process because they were victims of abuse. They end up being discriminated against again as a result of their stolen opportunities (their virginity). If our traditional values ensue, these are actually the people who should benefit from the assistance. If anything, victims of abuse are often involved in cycles of abuse and need all the resources they can get, especially financial resources.

Start a trust instead
Recognising that virginity testing is only a reflection of the values of some cultures, it does not reflect everybody’s values and should not be binding on them. If this is a government initiative, it stands to reason that it must benefit everyone without discrimination. In other words, boy virgins, white/Indian/coloured virgins etc. should all benefit from this initiative. Whatever shape or form the virgin comes in, then s/he should benefit from the bursary if, and only if, this is a government initiative. But if this is the personal view of people who have the personal funding to fund maidens, then we need to turn it into a trust that specifically gives maidens financial support and creates the type of society that enables them to remain virgins.

Nandisa Tushini is a counselling psychologist working at the department of correctional services as well as in private practice. She writes in her personal capacity.

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