Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Scholarships for virgins: Outrage over South Africa 'maiden's bursary'

Soon 18-year-old Thubelihle will leave her home in rural KwaZulu-Natal to head by bus to attend university in Pretoria. Thube, as her friends call her, says her family could not afford college, but help came in the form of a government scholarship offered by the local uThukela municipality, one of 11 districts in KwaZulu-Natal province. The main requirement -- Thube must remain a virgin. "We are keeping away from boys because we want to achieve our
goals," says Thube. "I don't have children. I am 18 years old, I must study hard to change and conquer the world." To qualify for the so-called "Maiden's Bursary Award," Thube will need to undergo virginity testing every vacation. A female elder in the community will determine if she has remained a "maiden" by conducting a manual inspection, usually on a grass mat. "You only have one chance to be a maiden," says Thube.

'Invasive and sexist'

News of the virgin-based scholarship has prompted fierce debate in South Africa, with rights groups saying that it is invasive and sexist. "The scholarship promotes stereotypes — that you only get a bursary because you are a virgin, not based on your capabilities," says Javu Baloyi, of the Commission on Gender and Equality. "There are better ways of getting an education." South Africa's main opposition party has lodged a complaint with the country's human rights commission and some activists have called it unconstitutional. But the Mayor behind the scholarships is standing her ground. "What I have noticed about all the critics is that they are not bringing solutions," says uThukela Mayor Dudu Mazibuko, who says she got pregnant in high school as a teenager and doesn't want girls to go through the same struggle. Mazibuko says they have tried different ways to stop teenage pregnancies in the schools of her district, but nothing has worked. According to the most recent figures from 2012, KwaZulu-Natal province has the highest rate of births to teenage mothers in South Africa. That year, more than 26,000 babies were born to girls aged between 15 and 19. Some new mothers were even younger.

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