Virginity Becomes a Commodity In Uganda's War Against AIDS

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 7, 2005

KITATYA, Uganda -- Mousisi Anatolius moved from hut to hut, taking notes in a tattered ledger as he interviewed parents and their young daughters. He was searching for virgins.

"How are you faring? What is your status?" Anatolius, a community leader, gently asked Prossy Naluyombia. A haggard girl of 13, she was one of 11 children living in a dark, mud-floor room with soiled laundry stuffed in the corners.

Several months ago, a Ugandan legislator proposed offering "chastity scholarships" in this poor farming district 150 miles southeast of the capital, Kampala. His hope was that the program, in which proven virgins can attend college at no cost, would encourage girls to resist entreaties from older men offering them money and security in exchange for sex.

Prossy's mother, Florence Babibye, would love to see her win such a scholarship. This spring, the mother of six took in five orphans whose parents had died from complications of AIDS. As the money for food, clothes and school fees dwindled, so did Prossy's resolve to stay chaste.

Last week, Prossy was offered a way out. An older man approached her in a secluded area of mango trees and made a proposition. He would take care of her in return for sex, Prossy said.

"I'm thinking about it. Ever since the orphans came, I only own one dress and one knickers," she told her mother, who anxiously rocked three crying children on her lap. "I want to take a sugar daddy and just go. I need someone to care for me."

"Don't go to the old men," pleaded Babibye, a woman of 30 with a kind smile. She had been forced into marriage at 15, she recounted, because her parents couldn't afford to feed her.

"Try and stay a little longer," she coaxed the girl. "It's not so bad."

Deemphasizing Condoms

For vulnerable girls and young women in many parts of Africa -- including those orphaned by AIDS -- sex has long been a way out of grinding poverty, overcrowded homes and an uncertain future .

"Here we say sex is a poor girl's food," said Anatolius, 43.

Now, however, the sexual behavior of African girls has become a new focus in the war on AIDS. In Uganda, South Africa and other countries, governments are promoting female sexual abstinence before or outside marriage as a primary means of combating the disease, which has ravaged the continent.

Janet Museveni, wife of Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, recently organized an abstinence march and attempted to conduct a "virgin census" on the campus of the country's main university.

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