Virginity Becomes a Commodity In Uganda's War Against AIDS

By Emily Wax

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."

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.

"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."

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.

"She will be perfect for the virgin scholarships," he said. He was accompanied by a small entourage, including Madada's second wife, Zainah.

"I suspect it will be hard to find the virgins," Zainah Madada said, volunteering that she had not been a virgin at marriage. "But I think there are a few that can set an example."

When the group reached Prussiant's hut, they found her grandmother lying on a mat, coughing and emaciated. Prussiant had washed the clothes, swept the floors and gone out to dig yams.

Prussiant's grandmother told Anatolius that the girl was still in the seventh grade. She had stayed back repeatedly, the grandmother said, because the family had no money to pay for high school. Was there a scholarship, the old woman asked in a whisper, for virgins stuck in the seventh grade?

Zainah Madada said there was no such program. But she urged Prussiant, who had just come in from the fields, to stay in school. "When you stay at home, the boys are around and there are things that happen that are premature," she said.

Prussiant brought out her school uniform, which was old and torn. "It's too short, and I hate wearing it. But I always wanted to study," Prussiant said. Her hands were cracked from hours of digging in the fields. "First, it was fine to repeat the same year. But now it's my third year. Maybe I should marry," she mumbled.

Her mother, who died in 2001, had told her to remain a virgin until she wed, the girl recalled.

"I try to remember what she told me and honor her memory," Prussiant said.

Sometimes, she said, an older man from the village promises her both marriage and school fees. So far she has turned him down. But with her parents dead and her grandmother sick, she might soon be left alone with seven orphans to care for.

"I'm trying, but I can't stay in seventh grade forever," she said. "If my grandmother dies, I will have to opt for a marriage. That would be the only resort."

Sitting in a village church, her baby at her breast, Alibakinza Tekera bowed her head and prayed for forgiveness. The parishioners, dressed in colorful clothing, swayed and clapped and closed their eyes in song.

"Please forgive my ambitions, God," prayed Alibakinza, 15. "Help me."

After the service, church members sang a harvest prayer and went outside to auction off baskets of yams, pumpkins and corn.

A crowd surged around the auctioneers. Men rushed to get a good price, then handed baskets to their wives and daughters. Alibakinza huddled in the back, weeping. She had no money, and no one to buy anything for her and her 7-month-old daughter, Agnus.

Anatolius and a priest led the girl to a shady spot and began speaking with her.

Alibakinza said she had been struggling for a decade. In the winter of 1994, her mother died from complications of AIDS. In the spring of 1995, her father died, too. Various relatives took her in, passing her on when the money ran low. Her grandmother, already caring for seven orphans, raised her the last few years.

"We were all suffering," she said. "I needed to provide for myself."

Nearly two years ago, she met a boy who was about to graduate from high school and had a job driving a motorbike taxi. She needed money for tuition, a new roof and her younger sister's clothing.

"He convinced me he would pay for me to finish secondary school and even send me on to nursing school," Alibakinza said as she cradled Agnus. "She was the only thing that came of our union, but I had no options," she said. "He possessed everything I needed."

Anatolius said he wondered whether the scholarships would end up demonizing girls like Alibakinza. He wondered whether he should talk to Madada about providing a scholarship to buy sewing machines instead.

"Maybe girls like this need a chance, a different kind of chance," he said.

Alibakinza asked if she could apply for a virgin scholarship anyway. She suggested she could hide Agnus, or give her away.

Anatolius, looking uncomfortable, said no. Then he asked if she could speak to some girls at the abstinence clubs about her experiences.

She thought for a moment and agreed.

"Maybe it will help if they see that I am so unhappy now," she said. "The problem is, the girls know already that sometimes sex is the only way."

In the cramped, two-room shelter, Babibye was tired and worried. The night before, Prossy and another girl, Justine Nambi, had argued over who was taking up too much room in their bed at night and ended up hitting each other.

"That's what happens when 11 children sleep shoulder-to-shoulder with no air," Babibye said in dismay. She sat the two girls down for a serious talk.

She told them how she once dreamed of being a lawyer. When she was 14, she watched a court hearing after a man had beaten one of her female relatives.

"The lawyers looked so smart," she said. "I wanted to be like them."

But within a year, she became restless and went off with a man. She never became a lawyer, Babibye said wistfully. She married, but her husband took three other wives. He rarely comes to visit now.

"Don't be like me," she said to Prossy and Justine. "I am trying to raise you right."

The next day, the house was busy. The children swept the compound, fetched water and made tea. In the afternoon, Prossy said she wanted to go out. But Babibye held her back.

"Just stay here," she said, with her hand on the girl's thin back. "You can wait and apply one day for the virgin scholarship."

Then she turned to Anatolius, who was back for a second visit, and asked if he could buy the girls a sewing machine. "Just in case," she said.