The National Department of Health on Wednesday defended a She Conquers campaign billboard next to the N1 in Johannesburg from accusations that it contained sexual innuendo. The department said the public had "misinterpreted" the billboard's meaning.
The billboard evoked strong emotions on social media, with one Facebook user threatening to lay a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa.
The first line of the billboard reads: "Who says girls don't want to be on top?"
"Complete your matric, study hard and graduate," the second line reads in a smaller font.
A She Conquers billboard next to the N1 in Johannesburg which is co-sponsored by the National Health Department. (Supplied) The health department is a co-sponsor of the She Conquers campaign.
The department's deputy director-general for the HIV' TB' and maternal and child health programmes, Yogan Pillay, said the billboard "certainly does not" feature any sexual innuendo.
"It is unfortunate that someone would read that into the billboard. If one reads the second line, you will clearly see that the billboard is aimed at encouraging women to complete their studies," Pillay told News24.
He said the She Conquers campaign is aimed specifically at trying to reduce the roughly 2 000 new HIV cases reported among women each week and the high rate of high school dropouts due to teenage pregnancy.
"We ran focus groups with young people to try and figure out how young people speak to make sure our campaign is effective. We want to try our best help girls achieve success in the future."
He said several similar billboards had been placed across Gauteng.
Look at this billboard. pic.twitter.com/LODEIq0XJM-- Dr T (@drtlaleng) September 12, 2017
In a Facebook post, Eve Dmochowska, from Johannesburg, however, said the billboard was "disgusting, degrading and completely unacceptable".
"Must I explain to my 15-year-old daughter what her government means when it questions why she doesn't 'want to be on top'?
"Must I explain to her... why she can be on top - because we are talking about her future, and not a sex position? Must we, as women, always bear the burden of sexual innuendo?"
Jacomi van der Merwe commented that "less talented (creative) people usually drag sex into advertisements" while Memory Mustard said "dirty minds will think in the gutter".
Vuyiseka Dubula-Majola, programme director at Sonke Gender Justice, said the billboard was missing context.
She said in the early 2000's the billboards of loveLife, a youth HIV prevention initiative, had attracted the same criticism.
Billboards, in general, did not give adequate information about the subject they were supposed to be addressing, she said.
"I am not a big fan of using billboards. Billboards are very dodgy and tricky."
Empowering young women against 'blessers'
Dubula-Majola said information sessions and workshops with students should always accompany the use of billboards not only to help explain the message but because "we don't live in a society where everyone is literate, so those who want to know more need to have access to that information".
"It will just irritate people if they don't know what it means."
Health department spokesperson Popo Maja said the She Conquers campaign sought mainly to empower girls and young women to be top achievers through education "to ensure that they don't depend on blessers".
"The Department will never communicate messages that promote sexual discrimination and sexuality," Maja told News24.
According to its website, She Conquers is a three-year national campaign that aims to improve the lives of adolescent girls and young women in South Africa.
It was launched in 2016.