Promoting Abstinence With Togo's 'Virgin Queens' Over HIV/AIDS Infections

fighting and promotion against HIV/AIDS infections protection

Lome (AFP) - With her tiara, silky hair and satin dress, Pascaline Boukari Kombate looks like any other beauty queen. But the blue sash she wears with pride tells a different story.

Kombate is Togo's reigning "Virgin Queen", whose job is to tour schools and promote sexual abstinence in a country concerned about a rise in teenage pregnancies and the spread of HIV.

Virginity pledges such as the True Love Waits and Silver Ring Thing programmes have become common, particularly in the United States among some Evangelical Christian groups.

But while those programmes relied on the word of teenagers and young adults to remain sexually abstinent until marriage, Togo has taken the idea to another level.

Every year for the last seven years, a hundred or so young Togolese women submit themselves to a virginity test to take part in the contest organised by a youth organisation, AV-Jeunes.

Kombate, a 21-year-old student in the third year of a science technology and social education degree, won the national title last year.

At a school in Togo's capital, Lome, she gives a talk to students.

"Study comes first and sex afterwards because you can't have your finger in more than one pie," she said.

- Virginity test -

The head of AV-Jeunes, Rodrigue Akolly, said the competition, which is open to girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 24, has both social and health aims.

"We're working in the main to reduce early pregnancy and new HIV/AIDS infections," he said.

"Candidates contact us either by text message or Facebook. Once contact has been established, we meet their parents to explain the aim of the competition.

"Some parents are reluctant but most appreciate the process and encourage us."

The virginity test -- the key to the contest -- is conducted by a team of gynaecologists 48 hours before the "coronation".

The grand final, covered by Togo's media and followed closely in households, also sees candidates answer questions in a general cultural knowledge quiz and perform traditional dance.

Four winners are chosen every year: the overall "Virgin Queen" -- Kombate -- and three others to target universities, middle schools and high schools.

Kombate said she "happily" agreed to the virginity test because she wanted to prove to her friends "that you can easily keep your virginity until a certain age".

Zita Totu, Togo's "Universities Virgin Queen" in 2014, said: "On campus, my friends look at me with admiration.

"Several charities are asking me for help for sensitisation programmes in villages," the third-year law student at the University of Lome added.

In just a few months, Virgin Queen Kombate and her chaste "royal" sisters have toured about 30 schools in Lome and other towns in Togo.

Their interventions often take place in classrooms in the presence of teachers or in a more informal atmosphere away from school premises.

"Many students quit school because of pregnancy," said Kombate.

"We have to take control again and think about our future. For me, I only have one goal at the moment: to finish my studies and find a job."

- Sex taboo -

According to UNAIDS, some 1.6 percent of young people aged 15-24 were living with HIV in 2014. Overall prevalence was 2.5 percent, with women twice as likely to be infected than men, it added.

HIV infection and deaths from AIDS-related illnesses are well down on highs in the late 1990s and early 2000s but are higher in coastal regions, including the capital, than inland.

Some 9.3 percent of 15-24 year-olds had sexual activity before they were 15. UNICEF said between 2008 and 2012 just under two in five women in that age group with multiple partners used condoms.

Rates of teenage pregnancies have caused concern in Togo.

In 2012-13, more than 5,000 pregnancies were recorded in secondary schools -- almost as many for the four previous school years combined, government figures indicated.

Epiphanie Houmey Eklu-Koevanu is the coordinator of the women's research, information and training centre (GF2D), Togo's biggest women's rights group.

For her, the only way to change the "alarming" situation is to break the taboo about sex.

"We have to adapt our way of educating children to the changes in the society in which we live at the moment," she said.

But, she added, the discussion shouldn't just be limited to sexual abstinence.

There was also a need to "be able to say clearly to a young girl what she needs to do to avoid pregnancy".

By: Emile Kouton
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