Thubelihle Dlodlo would not have made it to university in South Africa this year as her family could not afford the fees, but virginity brought her a lifeline.
As long as she remains a virgin, her tuition and boarding fees will be paid by her hometown municipality until the completion of her bachelor’s degree in education at a Pretoria university.
The 18-year-old secured a bursary or grant that rewards “maidens” in an attempt to curb teenage pregnancies and the rampant spread of HIV/AIDS in Uthukela district, about 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of the coastal city of Durban.
“This bursary is so important because it will change my future. I can conquer the world,” said Dlodlo, wearing a green-and-yellow miniskirt and multi-coloured necklace beads.
The size of the grants varies, but can be worth several thousand dollars a year.
A fellow recipient, Bongiwe Sithole, would also have dropped out of university due to poverty, but now will continue her studies.
Even at 32, she has delayed having sex.
“There is no limit for us as maidens,” Sithole said. “We are going to get the bursary (whether we)… pass with distinction or not.
“With your body, with your virginity, we get the bursary.”
Halfway through her four-year teaching diploma, she is the oldest of the 16 beneficiaries of the grants.
One of the conditions, however, is to undergo virginity tests, conducted by elderly women.
Rights activists are in an uproar over the idea of virginity tests, let alone the procedure itself, which they consider demeaning.
But the Uthukela authorities are unfazed.
“The main reason behind introducing the bursary is that… in our district we have got a very high rate of teenage pregnancies, and a lot of young people are infected by HIV and AIDS,” mayor Dudu Mazibuko told AFP.
Up to half of the population between the ages of 15 and 49 in the district is infected with HIV and AIDS, according to municipal statistics.
– Idea from ‘maidens‘ –
The number of teenagers giving birth in South Africa is high — with around 25 percent of girls becoming pregnant by the age of 19, according to statistics cited by the fact-checking organisation Africa Check.
“To find young girls that are able to abstain — for us that is an encouragement and we saw it fit that we encourage them by giving bursaries,” said Mazibuko.
She said the idea was mooted by the “maidens” themselves, who complained that they were not recognised, while their peers who fall pregnant get “rewarded” by the government with child support grants.
But gender and women’s rights activists strongly oppose the scholarship scheme.
Bathabile Dlamin, the ruling African National Congress women’s league chairwoman and minister of social development, slammed virginity testing as a “patently harmful practice steeped in patriarchal practices that serve to oppress women”.
The Commission for Gender Equality’s chairman Mfanozelwe Shozi said the bursary scheme “looks very discriminatory” and violates the constitution because it comes with the “conditionality” that the girls must be virgins.
And there appears to be no evidence of its impact on the HIV health crisis.
“There is no qualitative and quantitative research that has actually proven that by inspecting girls, you are going to reduce HIV/AIDS,” Shozi said.
Rights groups are also concerned that virginity screening is intrusive.
– ‘Keep your virginity’ –
But the maidens, the women who do the testing, and the local authorities disagree.
“Virginity testing does not invade my privacy. I love who I am and it gives me more dignity,” said Dlodlo.
She hopes to be a “role model” for other young women.
“There is no invasion of privacy because it’s done voluntarily, it’s not painful, there is no humiliation at all,” added Mazibuko, Uthukela’s female mayor.
Dudu Zwane, 58, is a former health worker who now carries out the tests.
She says she can determine virginity by a visual inspection of genitalia — a concept dismissed by medical experts.
“What I am doing is to bring back our culture. Our bayethe (traditional Zulu king) says keep your virginity,” she said, bemoaning the high HIV rate.
The mayor denied that the tests were sexist, saying that plans were under way to launch a similar scheme for boys, without explaining how they would be tested.
“We have started with the girls because they are more vulnerable, but… our long-term plan is ensuring that we reward young boys who stay virgins,” she said.
Mazibuko challenged those criticising the bursary scheme to “come up with better solutions.”
“We want to fight HIV and AIDS, we want to stop teenage pregnancy. This is what we thought will work for us.”