NAIROBI, Jan 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - By giving scholarships to girls who are virgins, South Africa is trying to control women's bodies while ignoring the role of men and sexual violence in spreading HIV/AIDS, a campaigner said.
In KwaZulu-Natal Province, uThekela municipality is offering higher education scholarships, known as The Maidens Bursary, to girls who can prove they are virgins.
"This is part of our contribution in fighting HIV and AIDS and also in encouraging education," Dudu Mazibuko, mayor of uThekela municipality, told local media.
"When they get into high school, that is when they start to be sexually active and they end up with HIV and AIDS and unwanted pregnancies."
South Africa has the largest population living with HIV/AIDS, some 6.8 million people, or 19 per cent of adults, according to the United Nations (U.N.) Programme on HIV/AIDS.
Its government, like many across Africa, has been promoting sexual abstinence as a way of tackling the pandemic.
KwaZulu-Natal, home of South Africa's polygamous president Jacob Zuma, has one of the country's highest rates of HIV.
The Zulu king reintroduced the traditional reed dance ceremonies, for which girls must pass a virginity test to participate, several years ago in a bid to promote chastity and combat the disease.
"Virginity testing is just one symptom of the policing of how women dress, how they behave," Tanya Charles, of the South African advocacy group Sonke Gender Justice, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In 2014, a public outcry pushed KwaZulu-Natal's health department to abandon plans to implant contraceptives in 12 female students who had received scholarships to study in India.
"It is a worrying trend," Charles said. "It points to an ignorance if you think HIV is only spread because girls are having too much sex or unprotected sex or if the solution is thought to be controlling women's sexuality."
More attention needs to be paid to the gender inequalities that make HIV prevalence so much higher among girls than boys, she said, such as poverty. Many girls trade sex for money, particularly with older men.
South Africa has one of the highest incidence of rape in the world, with more than one-third of girls experiencing sexual violence before the age of 18, according to the Medical Research Council.
South Africa's Department of Women said that it was going to "engage with" the municipality to ensure girls and boys have equal access to education.
"Obviously (boys) are not subjected to inhuman treatments like virginity testing in order for them to be given a particular bursary," its spokeswoman, Charlotte Lobe, said.
"The best way for protecting girls against unwanted pregnancy, against HIV and AIDS is to give them education."
(Reporting by Katy Migiro; Editing by Ros Russell)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.