South Africa – 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.
High rates of HIV
uThukela district still suffers from staggering HIV/AIDS rates — around half of pregnant mothers have contracted the disease, according to Mayor Mazibuko’s office.
South Africa has more than six million people living with HIV, the highest in the world.
“Young girls are vulnerable. 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,” Mazibuko says.
Thube says many of her high school friends have succumbed to the charms of “sugar-daddies” who provide money, gifts and favors in return for sex.
In South Africa, schoolgirls who get pregnant are encouraged to finish their education, but in practice many drop out and never return.
Last year, in a speech to traditional leaders — who still hold significant power in rural parts of the country — South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma said teenagers who got pregnant should be separated from their infants and sent to finish their studies at Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was jailed.
‘We don’t make virgins’
Mayor Mazibuko says the idea for the scholarship came from the girls themselves, who had banded together in preparation for the annual reed-dance held at the eNyokeni Royal Palace in Nongoma, KwaZulu-Natal.
“We don’t make the virgins, they were already starting up groups,” she says.
Held every year in September, the reed-dance was introduced in South Africa in the early 1990s by King Goodwill Zwelethini to promote abstinence in the face of the HIV epidemic.
It’s attended by young Zulu women who must first pass virginity tests within their communities.
However, the tests have done little to curb rampant HIV infection and teenage pregnancy in the past decade, and for many South African women, the reed-dance is anachronistic and offensive.
But for Thube, remaining a virgin is one way to stay safe.
“This is my choice,” she says.
And here in KwaZulu-Natal, the virgin scholarship is her only real chance of getting an education.