Thursday, 18 June 2009

Virginity scholarships

Salon's Broadsheet today discusses this news of university scholarships being offered to schoolgirls in Biriwa, Sierra Leone who can prove they are virgins. The scheme is aimed at reducing high rates of teenage pregnancy, and is being implemented along with a measure that bans "any schoolboy found guilty of impregnating another student from all educational institutions." Eligibility for the scholarships requires a virginity test administered by a community nurse.

Apart from the fact that a virginity test that examines the presence of an intact hymen is not reliable (a hymen may rupture at any point through regular physical activity and some women are born without them. And I hate that I even have to point all this out in the context of this article), subjecting a young woman to this type of test is grossly invasive and potentially shaming, whatever the result. But further prizing women's virginity and using it as a basis for a reward of education is very problematic. It creates an artificial relationship between the purity of women and their potential for academic attainment. Because even though in this setting, teenage pregnancy may interrupt young people's academic careers, with adequate access to birth control and reproductive health education, sex in itself need not. Even though one may argue that applicants subject themselves to the conditions of the scholarship, we all know the extent to which restrictions in opportunity also mean restrictions in choice, especially in a country with already limited access to education for girls.

And this type of measure also makes no distinction between young people engaging in sexual activity with each other and rape. Victims of rape are of necessity not eligible, so that these schemes not only stigmatize women's sexuality and pregnancy and prize virginity, but punish victims of sexual violence and reinforce the notion that the victim is to blame.

Boys are also being punished for their sexual behaviour, and incredibly, being permanently denied access to education. So while we may want to encourage young people who become pregnant and decide to care for their child to pursue education in order to better provide for themselves and their families, this measure advocates the opposite. It caps the educational attainment and future earning opportunities of boys as a punishment for the 'crime' of impregnating a young woman. I understand the desire to balance the responsibility of child care so that women are not disproportionately affected, but this is not the way to do it, and is essentially counter-productive, since it has the effect of limiting any potential financial transfers of father to mother for the support of the child, whether these transfers be voluntary or facilitated by the State. And if the motivation is to subject teenage fathers to the same 'punishment' as teenage mothers of being kept out of the school system, perhaps the answer is not to punish anyone at all, but to work towards a system that does not convert pregnancy into a lifetime sentence to poverty.

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