Students studying at University in Pretoria in the uThekela district in South Africa.
Photo courtesy of: http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/27/africa/south-africa-virgin-scholarship/
If you read this headline: “A mayor in South Africa institutes a scholarship program for virgin girls in her community,” you would think it’s just another hoax you’ve stumbled on a satirical site like The Onion. At least that was my initial thought about an actual program in uThekela district province, South Africa that does exactly that– award scholarships for virgin girls. If you are wondering how the girls prove their virginity, they are required to undergo a virginity test administered by local experts who are usually elder women in the community. One of the women identified as a “virginity tester” admits that her method is not scientific, but claims she can tell by looking “out for certain signs to prove that the girl has not had sex.”
Interestingly, this initiative has staunch local support as the practice is reinforced by cultural norms and practices. Of course, there is also criticism from various human rights groups. The mayor, who is a woman and the person spearheading program, defends her approach against criticism claiming that the scholarships reward what is considered good behavior and celebrates “purity” of girls, which the girls themselves treasure.
The primary intention of the policy is to curb the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, other STDs and unintended teen pregnancy, which are all serious public health issues that need to be addressed. In my view, this is a well-intentioned policy, but it is also premised on sexist cultural practices, thus horribly misguided. Well-intention because it is attempting to address a public health concern that disproportionately affects girls between the ages of 15-25. However, the gendered nature of socio-economic development policies and initiatives and the failure to recognize it as such is not justifiable. This is problematic for a various reasons ranging from blatant disregard of basic rights of girls to a fallacy in the program theory.
The gendered nature of the program is apparent in the implicit assumptions, beliefs, and values regarding girls and boys sexuality. It blissfully ignores the circumstances, such as rape, under which girls may lose their virginity. On the other hand it contributes to stigmatization of consensual sex, which may discourage girls to purchase contraceptives and forms a barrier to safe sex education more generally.
But how does this community hold the boys/men accountable? They simply do not. It is as if girls have sex with phantoms. As the popular saying goes, it takes two to tango, and the blissful ignorance of 50% of the “problem,” a.k.a. men and boys, is an expression of gendered social norms that privilege boys and men. Put another way, women will be penalized for their activities whereas men are not even questioned about theirs. Of course questioning men is not the solution. but excluding men from this process, by the nature of the testing method chosen, shows the blatant discrimination towards women.
There is also an intersectional piece to this story. The scholarship targets girls from low-income households. Consequently, girls who are subjected to this discriminatory program are already disadvantaged and underserved. So, an example of who this program would exclude could be a young girl from a low-income family who is a victim of rape. On the other hand, the boy/man who may have perpetrated that crime would still be eligible for the scholarship funds. The points I am trying to highlight is the ignorance of unintended consequences and whose interest does this policy serve, and who does it disenfranchise?
Moving on to the program theory, the logic is premised on using free education opportunities as an incentive to make girls to practice abstinence and by extension prevent transmission of HIV/AIDS, other STDs, and unintended teen pregnancy. The first problem with this logic is that it only tackles only 50% of the problem as there is no effort to involve boys in the process. By choosing to ignore 50% of the problem, the program is decreasing the likelihood of success. The second problem is that research shows that comprehensive sex education and awareness has a much better outcome than preaching abstinence. So even if they included boys, the chances of achieving the intended outcomes are low. The third problem is the assumption that girls who are sexually active will not do good in school. How are these two mutually exclusive? After all, aren’t women credited with their unique ability to multitask? Yes, this is not a stereotype and not a true statement, but I thought I’d follow the same line of thinking as those who crafted this ludicrous policy. The fourth problem is… clearly I can keep going on about this but I’ll spare you.
This scholarship program is yet another instance where voices and opinions of the powerful and privileged are normalized and legitimized through institutions such as culture and politics, which have become internalized by the population, even when these practices are incongruent with basic human rights principles. This is not to say that cultural practices must be replaced by universal human rights, rather to highlight that culture and rights must be adapted to fit the context and time, and neither can be used to justify harm or treat people in an undignified manner.
The biggest dismay of this ordeal is that the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, other STDs and unintended teen pregnancy is real. However, there is failure in recognizing that these are symptoms of endemic issues such as lack of sufficient education and health services. Unless the underlying problems are addressed, policies will only provide transactional, band-aid solutions rather than transformational solutions that address the root causes of the problem. It is important to state that rights groups who are advocating to end the practice of virginity testing are not solving the underlying problem. It also does not solve the public health issue nor does it mean more girls have access to quality education. Unless communities, politicians, human rights groups and all others concerned decide to look beyond the tip of the iceberg, and go below the surface to investigate the complexity that lays at the foundation of the iceberg, the chance to affect meaningful change will always be limited.
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