Africa fights AIDS with girl power

A bill is currently in Uganda's parliament that would strengthen women's rights.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Jauhara Naluyange has been off the street for eight months now. Three years ago, at age 16, she left home and entered the commercial-sex trade. She wanted to be like the hip kids in school, craving their "cool clothes, cool bags, and cellphones." But she was from one of Uganda's poorest slums and could seldom afford more than porridge for lunch.

Then one day the older girls shared their secret. "During holidays we go onto the street," they said. "Come with us."

Thus began her journey down into prostitution - and up, eventually, into a new life. It was a woman with a gruff voice and a quick smile who helped her escape. Now Jauhara cuts and braids hair for a living.

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Jauhara's story is an extreme example of the pressures facing African girls and women today. While most women don't choose prostitution, many are compelled by a lack of economic, legal, and cultural power to do things that expose them to AIDS. And in a part of the world where a new United Nations study says young women are three times more likely to contract HIV than men their age, leveling the economic and social playing field has become the new focus in the battle against the virus that can lead to AIDS.

Past anti-AIDS efforts in Africa have centered around distributing condoms and preaching the benefits of abstinence and safe sex. But the efforts in Uganda, long a leader in AIDS prevention, highlight the current thinking on how to best tackle the epidemic:

"Boosting women's economic opportunities and social power," says the annual UN AIDS report, "should be seen as part and parcel of potentially successful and sustainable AIDS strategies."

Out of sub-Sahara's HIV-positive young people, 76 percent are female, according to the report. Africa's adult women, meanwhile, are 1.3 times more likely to get the disease than adult men. And overall, women and girls make up a disproportionate 57 percent of Africa's estimated 25.4 million people diagnosed as HIV positive.

These numbers are increasingly cited as reason to change longstanding gender inequalities and cultural practices. A bill in Uganda's parliament, for instance, would address a host of customs - from polygamy to marital rape to bride price. Bride price is the widely practiced custom of men paying the wife's family before the wedding. Women's advocates say it often allows women to be treated as property. It can be used to give legitimacy, for instance, to a man forcing his wife to have sex. If a wife dies, men can argue that the money paid to the woman's family is transferable - and demand to marry her sister. Sometimes men want a refund so they can afford to marry again. All of these practices can spread AIDS.

Uganda's proposed law would make bride price optional, nontransferable, and nonrefundable.

But such practices have long been a key part of traditional societies. Salome Kimbugwe, coordinator of the Uganda Women's Network, which supports the law, recalls a discussion with a rural elder about bride price and women's property rights. The man asked: "But how can property own property? Can a table own a chair?"

For Jauhara, it was Joyce Kintu who helped her. Ms. Kintu is known as "Mama Joyce" in Kawempe, one of Kampala's toughest slums. She runs a small community center here funded by the African Medical & Research Foundation, a nonprofit based in Nairobi, Kenya. Jauhara and about 40 other former sex workers come daily to learn a new trade - hairdressing or tailoring. Kintu pays professional hairdressers to teach the women to add braids, straighten hair, and more. They can earn $5 or $7 for braiding a full head, although it can take all day. Which is exactly the point, Kintu says. "When they're working all day, they're tired at night" - too tired to walk the streets, she says.

Meanwhile, a focus on abstinence is seeing a resurgence, but this time it is tied to the efforts to empower women. A growing number of Ugandan groups - led by religious leaders and the first lady - are hoping to steer teens away from early sex. It's spawning what one local paper dubbed the "virginity craze." A recent event hosted by first lady Janet Museveni showcased 600 "virgins" who've pledged abstinence. The effort in this highly religious nation is partly a backlash against recent marketing efforts to boost condom use.

The trouble with advocating condoms more aggressively than abstinence or faithfulness is that "many people who fail to abstain eventually fail to use a condom," says Luboga Samuel, a professor at Makerere University's medical school in Kampala and chairman of the Uganda Youth Forum. The group encourages teens to take abstinence pledges, seek counseling if they're being pressured to have sex, and choose supportive friends.

Indeed, the biggest problem is "group influence," says Jauhara, who does not have AIDS, recalling how those girls in school seemed "so old and so cool."

But as she gets older - and more educated - she's gaining the confidence to stay off the street permanently. "Now that I've grown up," she says, "I won't go back."

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