Nigeria's virgins join fight against AIDS | india | Hindustan Times
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Nigeria's virgins join fight against AIDS

While Africa tries hard to combat the AIDS epidemic, Nigerian virgins vow abstinence to halt its spread.

india Updated: Dec 02, 2005 13:48 IST

Africa's top health experts will gather this weekend to discuss ways of halting the spread of the AIDS virus, but 22-year-old Kemi Ojie already has a simple plan; she's steering clear of sex, at least until December 29.

"After that, I won't be a virgin any more," she says, smiling. December 29 is her wedding day.

Until then, however, Kemi will remain a flag bearer for the African Virgin Ambassadors Foundation (AVAF), which promotes sexual abstinence as a means of protecting young women from the AIDS pandemic, which has infected more than 24 million people across the continent.

Her commitment would no doubt be applauded by many of the delegates to next week's 14th International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa (ICASA) in Abuja, but many would be surprised by the pressures she has overcome to keep to her vow of chastity.

Firstly, she has had to rebuff the same advances that inspire sackloads of letters to agony aunts in teenage glossy magazines around the world.

"I wanted to get married after I graduated, but my fiance, who is a 32-year-old medical doctor and is not a virgin, told me that he can not wait any longer. So we are getting married," she said.

But in Nigeria, young women also face far darker worries.

"There is some belief in Nigeria that virgins are used for rituals, sacrifices. Some girls are afraid to be raped if they say they are virgins, so very few of them dare say they are," Kemi said.

"We are explaining them that being a virgin is also to be free: you can go out, you can dress the way you want, you live a normal life apart from sexual intercourse before marriage," she said.

That might be challenge enough, but the young women of AVAF are determined to make a public statement about their choice.

"Every girl who wants to be part of our organisation has to go to a gynaecologist for a virginity test," she said.

"Last year, we organised a pageant in African dress, saying we were virgins and advertising it. Papers published our pictures asking readers to tell if they had slept with one of us," she added.

The group's reputation survived the outing, but as well as garnering publicity for a message of sexual health and AIDS prevention, the pageant attracted attention of a different kind.

"Many men are crazy about virgins and are ready to do any kind of stuff to get us. One man even proposed me a big amount of money to sleep with me after that," Kemi explained.

Kemi says that her inspiration was not simply concern for her health: "That is mainly the way I was brought up. My mum was a virgin when she got married. My father is not a polygamist."

"Then it is also a morality issue in my Pentecostal church," she said.

But AVAF is recognised as having done a good job in warning youngsters of the dangers of AIDS in Benin City, one of Nigeria's infection hotspots.

The group holds talks in schools and colleges and distributes health care literature.

Some experts, like Edo State health commissioner Godwin Ovbiagele, doubt that abstinence education is the best way forward.

"They are full of goodwill, and in the fight against HIV/AIDS all initiatives are much welcome, but it is all a bit naive," he said.

"These young ladies are trying to bring the old culture back, but times have changed," he said.

Many of the delegates at ICASA will recommend mixing abstinence programmes with distribution of condoms and education about safe sex for those young Africans who lack Kemi's willpower.

Others will note that she cannot know for sure what her husband to be has been up to while he has been waiting for her. They are not likely to change her mind, however.

"But for me virginity is not at all old fashioned. Even married, when I won't be a virgin any more, I'll advocate girls remain virgin before they get married," she said.

"There is a need for scholarships for virgins, a need to restore marriage as a value, and why not try to convince boys to remain virgin too?"