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Virginity Becomes a Commodity In Uganda's War Against AIDS

"Saving yourself for marriage is the right thing to do," read government billboards. "Beware of Sugar Daddies!" warn posters in schools. They depict a bulky man giving flowers and sweets to a frail girl through the tinted window of a Mercedes-Benz.

Sulaiman Madada, the member of parliament who is promoting chastity scholarships, said he hoped the program would reduce the incidence of AIDS in his district and help steer desperate young women away from sexual arrangements that can ruin their lives.

"This will promote morals and promote girls' education," Madada said. He said applicants would be given examinations to prove they had never had intercourse. "Our area has high incidences of early marriage and defilement and sugar daddies."

But some critics, including the group Human Rights Watch, assert that the push for abstinence has been motivated by politics, not purity. They charge that Museveni, once a leader in promoting condom use, has shifted to please the Bush administration, which champions abstinence and monogamy to prevent AIDS. Uganda receives $8 million from the United States each year to promote abstinence programs for youth.

Critics also argue that testing for virginity is traumatizing and could stigmatize girls who have been raped. Human rights groups have condemned the practice in some Islamic countries, where unmarried women may be forcibly tested as a form of moral policing. There is no equivalent test for boys or men.

Museveni, in a recent meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters in Washington, said that abstinence was preferable for young people and that condoms were more appropriate for "high-risk" groups such as prostitutes. But many health experts say that because African men often have multiple sex partners, condom use is critical to reducing AIDS.

The virgin scholarship plan has sparked debate within Uganda, too. Some people have raised concerns that virginity tests may be inaccurate and that girls who fail may be ostracized. There are also competing plans by local leaders to buy sewing machines so young girls can earn a living.

In Madada's district, 80 percent of families have lost at least one member to AIDS, according to a recent survey. The resulting economic strain has caused a rise in early marriages and in sex for money.

Mothers like Babibye say that it isn't easy for vulnerable young girls to refuse sex and that even they need to know about condoms.

"The girl child suffers so much," Babibye said. "Saying they have to keep their virginity to get a scholarship is a nice idea, but it seems unfair. I feel bad for the girls and my Prossy. They are just trying to survive."

Still in Seventh Grade

At 16, Prussiant Namagembe was a member of her school's "abstinence club." After class, the group would talk about how to avoid sugar daddies and marriage proposals. Prussiant was outspoken about wanting to remain a virgin, and known as a gifted student who wanted to be a physician.

Anatolius approached the hut where Prussiant, who lost both parents to AIDS, was living with her grandmother.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company