Women's rights activists have criticised a South African municipality for a scholarship programme that funds studies for young women if they can prove they are virgins.

On Friday, the uThekela municipality, in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), announced that 113 students would receive scholarships to pursue higher education in the country.

Sixteen scholarships were specifically designated for sexually inactive students, as part of a programme called Maiden's Bursary Awards. The programme started in January 2015, but it is unclear how many students were awarded the scholarship in 2015.

Sisonke Msimang, a policy development and advocacy consultant for the Sonke Gender Justice project in Johannesburg, said the municipality's decision was "a terrible idea [that] had so many layers of ridiculousness".

"Being sexually active and seeking an education have nothing to do with each other," Msimang told Al Jazeera.

Msimang described the programme as being an embodiment of "level upon level of patriarchal nonsense, unconstitutional misogyny and mixed-up madness".

'Pure and inactive'

We don't support anything that undermines the rights of women, be it cultural or not. If these details are true, we will definitely find it objectionable, and engage with the municipality to resolve it.

Department of Women

Jabulani Mkhonza, spokesperson for the municipality, described the scholarships for virgins as a way to encourage "girls to keep themselves pure and inactive from sexual activity and focus on their studies.

"Those children who have been awarded bursaries will be checked whenever they come back for holidays. The bursary will be taken away if they lose their virginity," Mkhonza told AFP news agency.

Reacting to the news, the Department of Women told Al Jazeera they were aware of reports of the scholarship programme, and would be investigating the matter.

"We don't support anything that undermines the rights of women. If these details are true, we would definitely find it objectionable, and engage with the municipality to resolve it," Charlotte Lobe, media liaison officer at the department of women said.

Mkhonza, the spokesperson for the municipality, told Al Jazeera he was not authorised to respond to the criticism, and directed all inquiries to Mayor Dudu Mazibuko. Al Jazeera was not able to reach her.

Activists argued that not only did the scholarship undermine civil liberties, it was also counter-productive and short-sighted in the larger struggle against HIV/AIDS in the country.

South Africa is home to 6.4 million HIV positive people, the highest in the world. In 2014, Medical charity Doctors without Borders (MSF) said 25.2 percent of KZN's adult population was HIV positive, compared to the national average of 17.9 percent. Women in KZN were also disproportionately affected by the virus, MSF said.

Another activist, Jennifer Thorpe, said the scholarship programme implied that discouraging women from sex would reduce the spread of HIV, a strategy she said "silences conversation around safe sex, consent, and importantly HIV medication and treatment.

"What is needed is dialogue, information, and the provision of free contraception. This would be a more strategic line of policy for the municipality to pursue," Thorpe wrote in the South African publication Mail & Guardian.

"Only young women and girls are subjected to this practice. Boys are not tested, and hence are not stigmatised or rewarded for their virginity."

One recipient of the award told News24 she did not mind the two check-ups she needed to take in order to apply for the scholarship. The 22-year-old second year pharmacy student said an elderly woman examined her in June and July.

"They open the vagina and look, but they don't insert anything in it. I have never heard of them getting it wrong."

Msimang said criticising the conditions of the scholarship should not be understood as an attempt to thwart proposals that back abstinence.

"The longer a young person, particularly a girl, abstains from sex, the better, so this is not about suggesting that abstinence is a bad idea. But this type of programme ignores the fact that sexual behaviour of young women is often not on their terms.

"Many young women don't have sex because 'they feel for it'. These are often choices out of their hands," Msigmang added.

The municipality's decision to award these scholarships comes at a time of extreme turmoil in higher education in South Africa.

Since October, students across the country, under the banner of the social media campaign #FeesMustFall, have demanded that the government scrap university fees across the board. Student activists argue that almost 22 years after apartheid ended, exorbitant fees were now excluding the majority of from accessing higher education.

Thorpe said the "purity" discourse distracts from the point that these girls simply want access to affordable education.

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