Recently it has been revealed that a mayor in South Africa is offering education scholarships to female students, something which should be fantastic news. There’s just one catch; the scholarship is only available to virgins. Not only must the girl reveal personal information about themselves to strangers in order to receive the scholarship, they must also be subject to regular invasive examinations to ensure that their virginity is still intact. The idea behind the virginity aspect of the scholarship is to reduce the levels of HIV in the country; however it may well cause many more social issues than it solves. Of course, any opportunity for disadvantaged girls to start or continue with their education is better than nothing, but the fact that it must cost them their privacy and dignity is completely perverse.
The thing that resonated most with me on first hearing of this scholarship was that at least it would level the educational playing field for girls and boys. My incorrect assumption, which I shamefully made from stereotypes of less developed countries, was that the education levels of girls would be much lower than that of boys. I was proved wrong as in fact not only are almost 100 per cent of the population of school age in education but the percentage of females enrolled in school is consistently higher than the percentage of males.
This begs the question — why is the scholarship focussing on girls and not boys? Both males and females are culpable for the spread of the disease, yet for some reason the responsibility is put upon the girl to stop it. Is this just another mutation of slut shaming? By offering rewards for girls and not boys for their virginity, it yet again reinforces the idea that it is acceptable for unmarried men to have extramarital sex, but not women. If the scholarship was truly concerned with equal opportunities the scholarship would be available for both genders as, as it is, it will only increase the education gap between genders. This is just another way of manipulating young girls into feeling ashamed for having sex, and this time the pressure isn’t just coming from society, it’s coming from the government.
for some reason the responsibility is put upon the girl to stop it
This revelation about the number of people in secondary education raises another question: why isn’t this platform being taken advantage of? With almost 100 per cent of teenagers being in education, if the money being used for the scholarships were to be used to provide education on practising safe sex and providing free contraception within schools, the message about preventing the spread of HIV would spread a lot further. The number of students in school compared to the number of girls wanting to go to university is proportionally much larger, and one has to wonder that if the intent of this scholarship is truly to curb HIV rates wouldn’t the money be better used elsewhere? Yes, this would mean that fewer girls would be able to go to university in the short term, however in the long term money would be saved on health care for HIV and this could go towards funding disadvantaged students through university without the added extra of institutionalised slut shaming.
Of course, we cannot disregard the good that this scholarship will do for some girls. Despite the fact that they have to sacrifice their personal and physical privacy in order to get it, some girls will be able to experience a university level education that their family would never have been able to afford for them. However, this invokes a social segregation between those that are virgins and can go to university and therefore go on to get good jobs and hopefully be able to afford university for their children, and those that are not virgins, may already have been exposed to HIV and may well remain poor and unable to provide a university level education for their child.
This is simply another way to keep those that are already disadvantaged, both in terms of wealth and health, down simply because, as a teenager, they chose to have sex. Of course, I am not so naïve to think that before this scholarship girls’ education hadn’t been affected by their choices regarding sex, of course it has, however this institutionalisation of it will only make the effect of this one, somewhat arbitrary, choice even more extreme and make the societal divide even more polemic.
Remaining a virgin is not the only way for disadvantaged girls to make it to university. The council offers over 100 scholarships and this year 16 of them have been given to virgin female students. This means that over 80 students have been given scholarships regardless of their choices regarding sexual activity. Given that less than a fifth of scholarship students’ scholarships were affected by the matter of virginity maybe we should cut the government some slack for making one of the many types of scholarship available to students related to virginity in the hope of reducing HIV.
We could do this if it weren’t for the ripple effect this scholarship will have. If something is condoned by the government, this is bound to make it more socially acceptable. Virginity testing has been a Zulu tradition for centuries, and, although it is not illegal, it must be done with consent from the girl being tested. However, in many cases it has been documented that girls are pressured into giving consent regardless of whether they want to do it or not. By condoning this practise and allowing the results to affect certain girl’s futures in such a large way, instances of young girls having their privacy invaded against their will in this way are only going to become increasingly common.
The issue of using a girl’s virginity as a manipulative tool may seem to us outdated and irrelevant to the Western world but it’s still an issue even in the West. An investigation into the tradition of chastity balls, balls at which young girls pledge their virginity to their father, went viral a couple of years ago for the exact same reasons as this scholarship is taking over the media now. These balls highlight the ‘elite’ of society, those that are viewed as the most worthy and respected in society, submitting those that choose not to do this to a world of judgement.
Inevitably, this scheme will have the same result. Those girls that do not qualify for the scholarship, simply because they chose to have sex, will not only miss out on the opportunity to further their education but will also be subject to judgement from their peers as governmental institutes are asking them to share personal details about their life. Across the world and throughout history women and girls are consistently judged on whether or not they choose to have sex and there is no way in which this will be remedied until traditions and institutions stop encouraging this behaviour.
governmental institutes are asking them to share personal details about their life
Whilst this scholarship will only affect a very small number of students directly, the larger impacts of it cannot be ignored. This scholarship will have brilliant consequences for many girls; however there must be a way in which these students could be given the same opportunities without having to subject girls to judgement and violations of privacy purely on the basis of virginity. The scholarship has come under so much scrutiny it is now under investigation by the South African Human Rights Commission which will hopefully result in it being eradicated for future years. Until then, one can only hope that the benefits that it claims to have will be realised.