A few days ago, I shared an article and petition on our Facebook page. The petition demands that a “South African mayor stop invasive and degrading virginity tests” as scholarship criteria. I shared it because it horrifies me to think that young women are being held to certain expectations around their sexuality, and that they have to endure regular “two-finger” checks to verify their virginity. The whole practice sounds degrading and out-dated- at least from the comfort of my middle class, American home.
A very dear friend of mine, whom I adore and respect a great deal, sent an email with an essay as a response to that post. She has graciously agreed to share it here.
Not so Black and White
By Pamela Denholm
South Africa is a wonderful country with beautiful landscapes, friendly and passionate people, and incredible diversity not often seen elsewhere: landscape, religion, culture, demographic, language—it certainly is the rainbow nation.
South Africa is also a hard country to live in. Poverty, tragedy, and injustice touch your life every day. It is unavoidable. And it is intimate. In your town, at work, at the store where you buy your bread, at the post office, at social gatherings: it is very close to home and part of your personal landscape. Do you ever give a thought to how many pairs of shoes you own? You will, when you stand in line at a supermarket behind a woman who doesn’t own any. Do you ever think about how many jackets are in your closets? Drive past a mother holding her cold child, using her body to give warmth. You might consider what to have for dinner, and walk right by a child who considers it a day of grace to have just one corn porridge meal.
What is known most about South Africa is the politics, but what affected me most about the country is how deeply the challenges exceed resources. You can give your time, you can share earnings, possessions, compassion, and do your best for your fellow man, and still feel swallowed whole having not curbed or stayed the roaring tide, not even a little. You are a pebble in a hurricane.
You are a pebble in a hurricane.
That’s not why we moved away. But, if I am brutally honest, having lived in southern Africa most of my life, I feel a mixture of relief and sadness at not having to confront it in my personal landscape anymore. Freed from the hurt, and ache, and guilt, I too can focus on what my children want in their school lunch boxes, or first world problems like why my wifi is down, and which reality tv program is the most outrageous. I don’t like feeling grateful that South Africa’s problems are not my daily reality anymore, but as with everything related to the country, her past, her present, her future: it’s complicated.
Complicated describes, too, the recent call to action on www.ThePetitionSite.com about a Mayor in Uthukele district offering scholarships to virgins. My first reaction, like so many others I am sure, was one of horror. In a country where human rights violations are stacked up against the walls of recent history hallways, the Mayor should know better. Then, I stopped to consider everything I know about Uthukele that isn’t discussed in the article. It is mostly rural, poverty is rife, and 25% of teenage girls between 15 and 19 will fall pregnant. HIV and AIDS are also epidemic, and the rape and assault statistics are out of control.
The article also failed to mention that the Mayor, Dudu Mazibuko, is a woman. She stares down these problems in her community every day. What’s more, the president of South Africa, her president, Jacob Zuma, who was born in her province where AIDS statistics are the worst in the country, was tried in the District High Court just prior to his presidency- for rape. He claimed it was consensual, but here’s the kicker: the woman he allegedly raped was HIV positive, and he knew her HIV status before they had intercourse. When he was confronted about this during the trial, he responded that he took a shower afterwards to minimize his risk of contracting the disease. He took a shower. He is the leader of a nation crippled by a rampant disease, a nation where more people live with AIDS and die of AIDS than anywhere else in the world, and not only did he engage in unprotected (and the general consensus is un-consensual) sex, he remedied the situation by taking a shower.
He was found not guilty, and the young woman who filed charges against him was granted asylum in the Netherlands the year following the verdict. Dudu is a cog in the wheel of the same government led by Jacob Zuma.
I am not Dudu. Thankfully. I am not responsible for the statistics in my district. I don’t stand behind 15 year old mothers in line at the supermarket, and I don’t have to worry at night about the welfare of the growing number of children orphaned by AIDS. Or children born with HIV. I don’t have severe budget constraints and severely limited resources to throw against a rising tide of social and economic discrepancies, and I don’t have to ask myself how I am going to keep clinics open and funded, or how I am going to make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable demographic of my community: young women between the ages of 15 and 19. Young girls for whom early motherhood is commonplace, and contracting AIDS is much more probable than even the opportunity to attend college.
As we righteously follow links on our laptops, iPads, or smart phones, and victoriously add our names to petitions to stop this practice, perhaps we should pause to consider what Dudu is up against, and what she is trying to achieve with the limited means she has at her disposal. I don’t condone scholarships for virgins, and I can’t, again, thankfully, say what I would do in her shoes, but I do understand that she is trying to make a difference in the lives of these young women, and she is trying to reach them before life altering (and in some cases, life ending) mistakes are made. I don’t think we should be pointing fingers at her, if we are truly outraged and want the practice to stop, we should rally to find a better solution that will help her turn the tide.
We should rally to find a better solution that will help her turn the tide.
I so appreciate Pam’s perspective. There is so much I do not have to think about or worry about on a daily basis as average (white) American woman. But my fellow women and mothers across the globe are burdened with so much. It hurts me to think about the little girls who do not get to high school, who are growing up as orphans, who are at risk for AIDS. This is a desperate time…these are desperate measures; perhaps all Mayor Mazibuko could think to do to help. It doesn’t make my heart break any less for these young women, but I’m less horrified by the scholarships than I am by the teen pregnancy and AIDS statistics.
Pamela Denholm was born is Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and lived in South Africa for many years before moving with her husband and two children to the south shore of Massachusetts. She is proud to be a woman, and believes we should lead with compassion, understanding, and tolerance. One of her favorite books is The Reader, written by Bernard Schlink, and her favorite quote from that book: “When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding.”