The Problem With Judging Virginity Scholarships In South Africa

Imagine if your only chance at an education were tied directly to your sexual purity. That’s the case for some young women in the uThukela municipality of South Africa, where a local mayor is offering higher-education scholarships to women who agree to undergo regular virginity testing.

“Remaining a virgin is my only chance to get an education because my parents can’t afford to take me to school,” 18-year-old Thubelihle Dlodlo, a scholarship recipient, told the BBC.

As it’s wended its way through the American media, this story has surfaced questions not just about female bodily autonomy, but also about the problematic way that Westerners view the practices — particularly when sexual in nature — of other cultures. I spoke with academics in the U.S. and Africa to better understand a situation that demands to be examined in a much broader, more complex context.

The Making Of A Controversy

Despite widespread backlash, Dudu Mazibuko — the mayor of the municipality where the scholarships are being offered — has stood by her decision as a way to keep young women safe in a province that has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in South Africa, and where half of teen mothers have HIV.

“What I have noticed about all the critics is that they are not bringing solutions,” Mazibuko said, according to a CNN report. Mazibuko herself became pregnant in high school, and says that the district has been unable to curb the number of teen pregnancies.

“Young girls are vulnerable,” she said. “They can’t refuse to have sex with an older person. They cannot even instruct an old man to wear a condom. They are not ready to have sex.”

In the Zulu culture, to which Dlodlo belongs, virginity testing is common, according to the BBC report. Each year, thousands of girls and young women undergo the testing in order to participate in the reed dance, a cultural spectacular where virgins dance before their king. The testing is conducted by elderly women, who look for various signs that a woman has — or hasn’t — had sex. Virginity testing is legal in South Africa, although it must be done with consent.

Dlodlo, the student, said: “Virginity testing is part of my culture; it is not an invasion of my privacy and I feel proud after I’m confirmed to be pure.”

In an email, Denise Walsh, associate professor at the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics and Women, Gender & Sexuality at the University of Virginia, explained, “It’s important to note that ‘virginity’ is not an objectively defined physical state but a status that in most societies (including many places in the contemporary United States) brings a young woman and her family social status.”

The virginity-testing practice has generated plenty of global controversy, for the obvious reason that it limits the control black South African women have over their own bodies. “Gender, race, and class intersect to marginalize young black women,” said Lindsay Clowes, chairperson of the Women’s & Gender Studies Department at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, when reached by email. “Tying their educational opportunities to the behavior of others (i.e., rapists) is morally and ethically wrong.”

Many in South Africa have, in turn, taken a stand against the decision. “Remember that scholarships for virgins have horrified South Africans, not just Americans,” Clowes said. “These scholarships are unconstitutional, indefensible, outrageous, and illegal. Education should not be tied to sexual status or behavior in any way, let alone something as arbitrary and random as virginity testing.”

In addition to raising moral objections, the scholarships have been questioned as a valid way to resolve the health issues Mazibuko hopes to address. “What is really worrying is that they are only focusing on the girl child, and this is discriminatory and will not address problems with teenage pregnancy and HIV infection rates,” said Palesa Mpapa from People Opposing Women Abuse, a South African NGO researching gender-based violence in Africa.

More complicated still is the fact that these scholarships, while generating plenty of outrage in the U.S., aren’t really so different from forms of female oppression common throughout the West. And as so often happens, perpetuating this outrage about a practice in South Africa may be distracting Americans from addressing the problematic features of their own culture.

A Local Story, A Global Issue

As Walsh noted, connecting virginity to social status is hardly unique to South Africa. Are virginity scholarships, after all, really so different from the Purity Balls common in the U.S.?

“There are many Americans (and of course other parts of the world) who support a wide range of controls over female sexuality,” said Clowes. “The particular form those controls take are always culturally and historically specific. Consider the Catholic church’s approach to condoms, for example, and, when young women fall pregnant, whether they really have any choices about termination, and what that might mean for their education.”

By age 30, only 1.5% of former teen moms in the U.S. have earned a college degree. In America, the link between sexual behavior and access to education may not be quite as overt as virginity scholarships, but there’s little doubt that the systemic issues underlying these forms of oppression are similar in nature.

“Through processes of socialization, patriarchal (and racist, homophobic, etc.) practices become normalized all over the world — America is not exempt,” Clowes said. “It’s rather that the dominant discourses and the specific examples are different.”

And yet, it’s so much more common to generalize and judge another’s culture’s practices than it is so reflect on the broader issues at play. “While I’m not aiming to minimize [this story], please consider it in context — it’s one municipality and a dozen or so girls,” Clowes said. “It has already generated enormous outrage across the country. Don’t stereotype 50 million South Africans on the basis of this.”

When I reached out to Teresa Barnes, an associate professor of history and gender/women’s studies at the University of Illinois who has studied South Africa extensively, she put it more pointedly:

“I don’t want to participate in the discourse of focusing on what African women do with their bodies from a perspective of Western outrage. It can only feed into the well-worn tradition of ‘We, Western writers and readers, are far ahead of the stunted understanding of human and women’s rights of those African women, which we will now proceed to demonstrate by revealing gory details of their depraved practices.’ I think the impulse is widespread and really a coded way to reinforce Western self-satisfaction (which is unwarranted!).”

Before condemning what’s happening in South Africa with no sense of broader context, perhaps we should examine why regulated female sexuality is so common on a global scale. Virginity scholarships may sound particularly egregious, but they’re rooted in systems of oppression prevalent throughout many cultures . . . including right here at home.

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Lead image: flickr/Humphrey King

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