KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) - An African kingdom has a plan to stop the spread of HIV. It's going to revive an old tradition by rewarding virginity.

Those who remain virgins into their early 20s will get a gift to start launch them into adulthood - for men, perhaps a few head of cattle; for women, a refrigerator or stove.

In fact, the Buganda Kingdom, the largest of Uganda's traditional monarchies, is putting a modern spin on old-time morality - an approach kingdom officials say is needed in a country where the HIV-infection rate has hovered around 10 percent since the mid-1990s.

The details, such as at what age young people will be asked to take virginity pledges and how long the pledges will apply, are still being worked out.

There's also the question of how to pay for the rewards - a major obstacle for the kingdom, which is a cultural institution under Ugandan sovereignty and has no political or tax-raising powers.

However, some details - such as how to make sure young people who sign on remain chaste - have already been covered.

``We're going to test the girls,'' said Robert Ssebunnya, the kingdom's health minister. ``In the case of boys, I guess we will have to trust them not to lie.''

The Buganda kingdom isn't the first African monarchy to use tradition as a tool to stop HIV. It's an idea with growing appeal in Africa, where dealing with the disease has become a facet of daily life for almost everyone.

``What we're seeing in parts of Africa is communities responding to the epidemic by saying 'lets see what's in our culture - how can we deal with this with what we had in the past?''' said Suzanne Leclerc-Madlalas, a medical anthropologist at the University of Natal in South Africa.

``And what they had most of the time was a way of regulating sexuality,'' she said.

In the tiny southern African kingdom of Swaziland, a return to tradition has worked out as a five-year ban on sex for young women.

The ban was decreed in September by King Mswati III, who ordered young women to wear tassels, a traditional Swazi badge of virginity, around their necks.

Under Mswati's decree, men may not touch young women - even handshakes are taboo - and the women cannot wear jeans or trousers. Violators face stiff fines.

The Swazi plan has been criticized for its focus on young women and severe restrictions on contact between the sexes. The Buganda Kingdom is hoping to avoid similar criticism with a gender-neutral approach to virginity and a nod toward contemporary mores.

``We're not telling young people they can't go on dates, not to dance or hold hands,'' Ssebunnya said. ``We're just saying maybe you shouldn't have sex. That way you won't get sick, you won't have children before you finish school.''

The medical community has dismissed virginity testing as pseudo-science, and some say it violates women's rights, but Ssebunnya dismisses such criticisms. ``We have our own way, a traditional way, of testing,'' he said, declining to elaborate.

To bolster the abstinence drive, the kingdom is writing a sex manual and expanding the traditional role of ``sengas'' - aunts.

Sengas customarily counseled their nieces on wedding night etiquette and other wifely roles. Under the new plan, the kingdom will appoint sengas for whole communities, where they will teach young people - boys and girls - about sex and the virtues of avoiding it.

Buganda was an independent kingdom that was absorbed into Uganda when the country gained independence from Britain in 1962 and abolished when it tried to secede in 1966.

The kingdom was restored, along with two others, nine years ago on condition it stick to cultural affairs.

But, in a country where the influence of Western culture is growing and sexually charged American soap operas like ``The Bold and the Beautiful'' are among the most popular television shows, can an old African virginity tradition be revived with a cow and a stove?

``Faced with rapid social change of any kind it's pretty well documented that people look to the past for answers,'' said Leclerc-Madlalas. ``But it means going back 200 years and recreating social structures that don't work anymore ... the traditions died for a reason.''

Regardless, Buganda officials, led by King Ronald Muwenda Mutebi, are pressing ahead. They've begun promoting the virginity campaign and say it'll be running by the end of the year.

Officials say they're confident the campaign will catch on among the kingdom's subjects, who make up about 17 percent of Uganda's 24 million people.

So far, however, the reaction among young people appears mixed.

``Staying a virgin means respecting our culture,'' said Rose Orishaba, a 16-year old student in Kampala, who plans to sign a virginity pledge. ``It keeps us safe from disease.''

A few classmates, mostly boys, loitering outside between classes giggled at the word ``virgin.''

``I'd wait until I was older; sex isn't good for us,'' said Cesar Katalega with a sarcastic smile.

``You just want the cow,'' shouted a friend, Timothy Sembatya. A few of the boys standing around laughed. ``I'm not waiting to have sex ... this is for old people.''

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad