Why South African mayor offers virgin scholarships

Media caption,
South African mayor awards virgin scholarships in bid to curb HIV

A scheme which offers female students scholarships to girls in rural South Africa if they can prove they are virgins has been condemned by human rights groups. The BBC's Nomsa Maseko visited the town to find out more.

Thubelihle Dlodlo is nervous about leaving home in Emcitsheni village in rural KwaZulu-Natal. The 18-year-old has won a prized scholarship, but there is a catch: she only qualifies for the funding if she keeps her virginity.

"Remaining a virgin is my only chance to get an education because my parents can't afford to take me to school," she says.

To continue receiving her funding, Ms Dlodlo has to undergo regular virginity tests but she says she does not mind.

"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."

Image caption,
Thubelihle Dlodlo says she wants to be a role model

The age of consent in South Africa is 16 years, though there is an exception which makes it legal for those older than 12 and younger than 16 to have sex with each other.

Even with a strict interpretation of the law, Ms Dlodlo is already more than two years over the age of consent, but is only just starting her university career.

But activists argue these tests are intrusive and that it is not fair to link opportunity to education and sex in this way:

"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," says Palesa Mpapa from campaign group People Opposing Women Abuse.

"It's not only the girl that is to blame," she says.

uThukela municipality mayor Dudu Mazibuko, who introduced this special category dedicated to virgin girls, disagrees.

"The scholarship is not a reward but a lifelong investment in the life of a girl, we are also not condemning those who've made different choices because we accommodate them in other scholarships," she said.

The council offers more than 100 scholarships, 16 of which have been given to virgin female students.

Culture and tradition

In this part of the country, virginity testing is common practice. In Zulu culture, virginity testing is done by elderly women.

It qualifies Zulu maidens to participate in the annual reed dance which takes place every September at Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini's royal palace.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Students selected for the scheme have already received virginity tests so they can take part in the annual reed dance

This practice is not against the law in South Africa but it has to be done with consent.

Community leader Dudu Zwane has made it her mission to encourage young girls to abstain from sex. Affectionately known as "Mum Dudu", the 58-year-old gives talks at schools.

"It's very important for these girls to focus on their studies and stay away from boys," she says.

Image caption,
Dudu Zwane is a respected virginity tester in the small town of Ladysmith

The retired nurse also conducts virginity tests on young women. She agrees that her methods are not scientific but says she looks out for certain signs to prove that the girl has not had sex.

"The social standing of young women who remain virgins increases and many girls take pride in their results after being tested," she said.

Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini recently questioned the merits of virginity testing.

The practice "complements other harmful practices such as female genital mutilation", she said in a statement which upset traditionalists.

In rural parts of KwaZula-Natal, virginity is celebrated and remaining "pure" is a source of pride for families.

Ms Dlodlo says her friends are also virgins and envy her for being awarded the scholarship.

She says she does not have a boyfriend, as she doesn't want to find herself in a position where she is pressured to have sex.

"I want to be a role model", she says.

Teenage pregnancy in South Africa

  • 2013: 100,000 South African teenagers became pregnant
  • 2012: 81,000 teenage pregnancies
  • 2011: 68,000 teenage pregnancies
  • 180 out of 1,000 pupils become pregnant or make someone pregnant
  • Teenage mothers account for 36% of maternal deaths every year

Source: Human Sciences Research Council, World Bank; Stats SA 2013


Virginity testing is seen by some as the answer to stop the increasing numbers of teenage pregnancy and HIV and Aids.

Teenage pregnancy is on the rise in South Africa.

In 2013, a survey released by Stats SA as part of its General Household found that teen pregnancies had risen to nearly 100,000, up from 68,000 just two years earlier.

The South African Council for Educators and the education department labelled the figures an unprecedented crisis.

This is despite the fact that the country's schools offer sex education and that free maternal care is also available nationwide.

South Africa already has the highest number of people living with HIV in the world, but what is even more alarming is that the highest new HIV infections are amongst young women aged 15-24.

Following the outcry, the South African Human Rights Commission has said it will investigate whether the scholarships are against the constitution.

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