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Durban - Sexual health experts have equated virginity tests with sexual assault in their reaction to matriculants from Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal having to undergo these tests to get bursaries.

This follows a report in the Times of Ladysmith on Friday that 16 women were awarded “maiden” bursaries for tertiary education on condition they were virgins. They would lose the bursaries if they failed virginity tests, which took place every holiday, the report said.

The uThukela District Municipality, led by mayor Dudu Mazibuko, awarded the bursaries.

The report brought widespread reaction with the media quoting traditionalists justifying it because this prevented pregnancies and infections such as HIV/Aids. The Guardian in the UK covered the story on Saturday.

But most experts interviewed said such stipulations violated girls.

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, known as Dr T, a medical doctor and member of the Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition, said the girls were being “sexually assaulted so that they could get an education. It’s a crime. Their mothers were themselves sexually abused when it happened to them as girls. The abused person becomes the abuser”. She said virginity had nothing to do with education. “A virgin is not an acceptable norm to measure if someone should receive a bursary. Virginity has nothing to do with academic merit.

“They’re using education as a carrot to stay a virgin.”

Vikar Singh, a fourth-year medical student at the University of KZN and head of sexual and reproductive health at the SA Medical Students’ Association agreed that the testing amounted to sexual assault.

“They lie flat and they’re told to spread their legs and then someone uses an index finger to check whether their hymen is intact.”

He said sexual assault involved indirect or direct contact between the genital organs of a person and any part of the body of another person.

“If they’re coerced, it’s not consent.”

Mofokeng said “it’s not okay just because you’re poor and black and don’t know your rights. They know it’s wrong, but they also know: ‘this is what I need to do to get ahead in life’. If you’re the only one in a large group standing up and refusing to be tested, you will be ostracised. So you learn to allow yourself to be abused so that you can get an education”.

She said girls were tasked with preventing pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections while “all boys have to do is wake up, go to school and chase girls. Meanwhile, girls wake up, clean the house, often at the expense of their education, have virginity tests and face catcalling and harassment”.

She said sometimes, girls had sex with their boyfriends. “Now, she must live with the guilt of ‘Oh God, I had sex’. And then comes the heartache that she failed the virginity test and will not get a bursary.”

 

Singh said education was “very important and should not be based on whether a girl has engaged in sexual activity”.

A girl who has been raped or whose hymen broke because of strenuous exercise had a right to education, but would have no access to the bursary.

The head of the SA Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecology, Dr Sagie Naidu, said the profession could not sanction virginity testing as it was a violation of the rights of young women. “We frown on practices like that. We refuse to do it,” he said.

But Siyaz Zulu, one of the dance leaders of the Indlamu traditional Zulu war dance, from Msinga valley, near Ladysmith, said he strongly supported virginity-testing to get a bursary.

He believed “a woman should never have sex with a man unless lobola has been paid and they are married”. This was so, even if the woman was over 40 years old, he said.

“People who criticise this culture don’t know who they are,” said Zulu. “You get Western culture and African culture. They’re very different.”

Zulu said virgins should not allow males “to lie on top of them because then it’s difficult to defend themselves. Most of the time, when there’s two of you in the room, the man has the power to make you change your mind, so don’t even go into the room with him.

“Boys will take a chance, but girls must be strong. Ten boys will say they love you, but you must choose the right one very carefully,” said Zulu.

Weekend Argus