Schoolgirls in South Africa are being offered university scholarships, which is, on the face of it, good news. However, the controversial catch is that they have to be virgins (and remain that way) to qualify for one.
The programme is called the Maidens Bursary Award, and it was introduced this year in the Uthukela district in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province in an attempt to keep girls “pure” and allow them to focus on schoolwork, mayoral spokesman Jabulani Mkhonza revealed on Sunday, Fox News reports.
Uthukela mayor Dudu Mazibuko told South African talk radio station 702 that the 16 women who were awarded this year’s bursary had voluntarily remained virgins.
“To us, it’s just to say thank you for keeping yourself, and you can still keep yourself for the next three years until you get your degree or certificate”, Mazibuko said.
The grants will continue to be renewed “as long as the child can produce a certificate that she is still a virgin”, he continued, adding that the scholarship’s intention is to help young women to continue their education and avoid problems that arise from engaging in sexual activity — including sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy.
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But is this the right way to keep young women focused on their education and career? Or is it grossly infringing on these girls’ human rights and highlighting the gender imbalances that still exist within society?
Women’s rights activists have reacted in outrage.
Sisonke Msimang, a policy development and advocacy consultant for the Sonke Gender Justice project in Johannesburg, spoke to Al Jazeera about the bursary, calling it a “terrible idea [that] has so many layers of ridiculousness“.
“Being sexually active and seeking an education have nothing to do with each other”, Msimang continued. She added that the programme was “level upon level of patriarchal nonsense, unconstitutional misogyny and mixed-up madness”.
Activist Vincentia Ngobese also weighed in on the bursary restrictions, saying they were a prime example of gender imbalances being “perpetrated”.
There is also some chatter about the scholarship programme on Twitter — and clearly some very opposing viewpoints.
Giving a bursary based on Virginity is sexist and humiliating! Takes us backwards! Makes me mad! Staying Virgin is no one else's business
— Cde Troy (@Troy_Martens) January 22, 2016
Somebody help me understand why you're suppose to remain a virgin for bursary?
— Fikile Shabalala (@AdorableMshengu) January 22, 2016
But there are also those who think it’s a good idea.
Guys if Im paying out money for a bursary I can make the rules. If one of them is that u must be a virgin and ur still a teen I see no issue
— Teebs (@Teebee_Lamola) January 25, 2016
Let me apply for this Maidens Bursary, plus I'm a virgin.
— Peppa Pig (@Spesh__) January 22, 2016