There are a number of requirements for going to university, but one is proving particularly controversial: a municipality’s stipulation that to obtain a bursary you must be, and remain, a virgin throughout your undergraduate degree.
This is one of the initiatives being used to combat the high prevalence of HIV in KwaZulu-Natal. In the uThukela District Municipality matriculants are being offered “maiden bursary awards”, and part of the interview process is undergoing virginity testing. The other stipulation is that successful candidates must continually subject themselves to testing during their undergraduate degree to make sure they remain virgins.
Virginity testing entails examining the girl’s hymen to establish that she is still a virgin.
In some societies a “nonvirgin” verdict can have an array of consequences, including honour killing, abuse, isolation, financial penalties, family shame and poor marriage prospects.
In this case, it can lead to you not getting an education because high tuition fees are a barrier to entry to tertiary institutions.
It is reported that 16 bursaries were awarded to girls who had undergone the testing and “passed”. Unfortunately for any girl who has ever worn a tampon or ever been on a bicycle, or maybe even just sat down too fast and too hard, they probably wouldn’t pass because all these activities can break the hymen. So sorry, no bursary for you.
The problem with projects like this is that they identify women as the core problem in the spread of HIV. If women are not having sex or promoting sex, then HIV will somehow stop its reign of terror. This logic is flawed on at least one major level: it puts the onus (and thus the blame) squarely on women, ignoring the fact that there are generally two partners in a sexual interaction.
Another alleged initiative, this time from Tanzania, aims to stop the spread of HIV by getting women to dress more conservatively. If women are dressed in a more demure fashion, the argument runs, then the spread of the virus will surely be arrested. Although it has been denied that this proposal came from the halls of political power, the mentality behind it remains the same.
The pandemic on the continent is undeniably something that needs serious attention, but stopping women from wearing miniskirts and making sure they are virgins is not the way to do it.
These and other initiatives fail because they strip all responsibility from men. It is the same thinking that says men are “stolen” by women, the same thinking that supports rape culture and victim blaming because it is rooted in the idea that women are “asking for it” when they look a certain way, behave in a certain way or breathe too loudly.
This thinking does not take into account the reality of women who are sexually assaulted even when they are wearing jeans and jackets.
The “virgin bursaries” sidestep the fact that a confirmation of virginal status can have dire consequences, such as rape by HIV-infected men who believe sex with a virgin will cure them.
The answer is not to keep placing all the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of women, but rather to educate both parties about safe sex.
If the key part of your HIV prevention strategy is abstinence, then make it a mutual thing. HIV will not go away simply because women are not having sex; men must not have sex either. The “test” for virginity must apply to both partners.
If safe sex is the focus, then those involved should be educated and held accountable. No matter what the initiative is, it must, like sex, involve both people.
Solving half of the problem (or none of it if the solution is to discriminate against women) will not lead to long-lasting results. This burden cannot continue to fall on women alone.
Of the estimated 36.9-million people living with HIV in the world, 70% (or 25.8-million) live in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organisation.
Despite strides being made to stem new infections, South Africa still has one of the highest incidences of HIV in the world, coupled with a high prevalence of sexual assault and teenage pregnancy.
A host of sociopolitical problems need to be addressed apart from women “keeping themselves pure”.
The idea that women are the source of sexual control means we must also take the blame when things go wrong, which is ludicrous. It also allows men to continue to be sexual predators.
Kagure Mugo is the cofounder and full-time curator of HOLAAfrica!