South African Mayor Defends Scholarships for Virgins

Zulu elders watch the annual Reed Dance ceremony, which features young female virgins, on September 5, 2014, in Nongoma, KwaZulu-Natal region. A mayor in the region has awarded 16 young women with university scholarships for pledging to remain virgins. MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

The mayor of a South African district where female university students can receive a scholarship if they remain virgins has defended the initiative, the BBC reported.

Dudu Mazibuko, the mayor of the Uthukela district in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, awarded scholarships to 16 young women who voluntarily pledged to remain virgins, AP reported on Sunday. The women also agreed to undertake regular virginity tests to continue to qualify for the bursaries.

Mazibuko told the BBC that the awards system is aimed at reducing "HIV, AIDS and unwanted pregnancy" and that she would be happy for her own daughters to undergo the testing. Mazibuko also clarified that the testing would be carried out as part of preparations for an annual Zulu ceremony, in which virgins perform a dance for Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, and so would not be carried out by district or university authorities.

Students have to produce a certificate of virginity to continue to qualify for the bursary. Mazibuko's spokesman, Jabulani Mkhonza, told AP that the system would encourage students to be "pure and focus on school."

South Africa's Department of Basic Education recorded 20,000 pregnancies among girls and young women in schools during 2014, with 223 occurring at primary schools, the South African Broadcasting Corporation reported.

The country is the site of the world's largest HIV epidemic, with 5.6 million people—around 17 percent of the population—living with the disease.

Mfanozelwe Shozi, the chairman of South Africa's Commission for Gender Equality, told AP that she appreciates the mayor's intentions but that "there is an issue around discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, virginity and even against boys."

The move was also criticized by Idumeleng Muloko, a spokeswoman for women's rights group People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA). "Virginity testing will never stop the spread of HIV and AIDS," Muloko told BBC's Focus on Africa radio program, adding that testing girls to see if they are virgins violates "the rights and dignity" of the girls.