How women are being used as the front line soldiers in the war against HIV and sexual immorality

By Kagure Mugo

The key stipulation to being awarded a university bursary is being, and remaining, a virgin throughout your undergraduate degree. This is one of the initiatives being used to combat the high prevalence of HIV Aids in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. In uThukela District Municipality matriculants (high school leavers) are being offered Maiden Bursary Awards, and part of the interview process involves having to undergo virginity testing. The other stipulation is that successful candidates must continuously undergo testing at various times for the duration of their undergraduate degree in order to make sure they remain virgins.

According to this piece by Jennifer Thorpe, virginity testing entails examining the girl’s hymen in order to establish that she is still a virgin. A ‘non-virgin’ verdict can have an array of consequences including honour killing, abuse, isolation, financial penalty, family shame, and poor marriage prospects. In this case it can lead to you not getting an education as high tuition fees are often a barrier to entry to tertiary institutions.

It is alleged that 16 bursaries were awarded to girls who had undergone the testing and ‘passed’.

Unfortunately for any girl who has ever worn a tampon, or ever been on a bicycle, or maybe even just sat down too fast and hard, they most likely wouldn’t pass because all these activities can break the hymen. So sorry, no bursary for you.

The Aids epidemic on the continent is undeniably something that needs serious attention. There are many ways that stemming the spread of Aids can happen but stopping women from wearing miniskirts and making sure they are virgins is not one of them.

The problem with these initiatives is that they continuously identify women as the core problem in the spread of HIV/Aids. If women are not having sex or promoting sex then HIV Aids will somehow stop its reign of terror. This logic is flawed on one major level, it puts the onus (and thus blame) squarely on women ignoring the fact that there are two partners in any sexual interaction.

Another alleged initiative from Tanzania aims to stop the spread of HIV by getting women to dress more conservatively. If women are dressed in a more demure fashion, the argument runs, then the spread of HIV/Aids will surely be stopped. Although there has been denial that this initiative came from within the halls of political power the mentality behind it remains the same.

The Aids epidemic on the continent is undeniably something that needs serious attention. There are many ways that stemming the spread of Aids can happen but stopping women from wearing miniskirts and making sure they are virgins is not one of them.
Both these and many other initiatives fail because they strip all responsibility from men. It is the same thinking which says men are ‘stolen’ by women. The same thinking that supports rape culture and victim blaming because it is rooted in the idea that women are ‘asking for it’ when they look a certain way, behave a certain way or breathe too loudly.

These initiatives do not take into account the reality of women who are sexually assaulted even when they are in long jeans and jackets. And initiatives like the ‘virgin bursaries’ do not take into account that a confirmation of virginal status can have dire consequences such as rape by HIV infected men who believe sex with a virgin will cure them.

If the key part of your HIV prevention strategy is abstinence then make it a mutual thing. HIV will not stop simply because women are not having sex – men must not have sex either. If one is to ‘test’ for virginity then it must be done for both partners. If safe sex is going to be the focus then both parties should be educated and held accountable. No matter what the initiative, it must, like sex, make sure that it involves both parties.

Solving half of the problem (or none of it if the solution is to discriminate against women) will not lead to long lasting results. This burden cannot continue to fall to women. Of the 25.8 million people living with Aids in the world 70% live in sub Saharan Africa and in 2014 we accounted for 66% of the world’s deaths.

The idea that women must be the ones to be the source of sexual control means that we must also take the blame when things go wrong, which is ludicrous. It also allows men to continue to be sexual predators.

This was first published on This Is Africa

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