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Hey Swaziland: $18 Won’t Buy You a Solution to Your AIDS Crisis

Certainly, when the World Bank gave Swaziland money to combat HIV and AIDS, the international development bank intended for some of the funds to pay teenage girls to remain chaste. Swaziland’s King Mswati III announced on Thursday that he will use some of the internationally donated HIV/AIDS prevention funds to offer teenage girls $18 a ...

Fati Moalusi/AFP
Fati Moalusi/AFP

Certainly, when the World Bank gave Swaziland money to combat HIV and AIDS, the international development bank intended for some of the funds to pay teenage girls to remain chaste.

Swaziland’s King Mswati III announced on Thursday that he will use some of the internationally donated HIV/AIDS prevention funds to offer teenage girls $18 a month to hold onto their virginity in an effort to curb the high rate of infection plaguing the small country, where the average citizen lives only to age 49.

According to the U.N., 27 percent of adults in Swaziland are infected with HIV/AIDS. The highest rate of infection is in women ages 18 to 24 who often exchange sexual favors for money and gifts from "sugar daddies" — older men who usually have multiple sexual partners.

But never mind using those World Bank funds to increase co-ed sex education, provide condoms, or wage a campaign against these sugar daddies who Mswati blames for the rising rate of infection in a country where 63 percent of the population lives at the poverty line as determined by the World Bank.

And never mind that Mswati, who himself has 15 wives and hosts a controversial party each year where upwards of 70,000 teenage girls dance half-naked for him in a provocative show, is the one preaching faithfulness and abstinence in teens.

In the United States, $18 can’t even get get you two large cheese pizzas or a couple of tickets to a movie on a Saturday night. But in Swaziland, where the king owns 13 palaces and a $17 million private jet, it’s the month-by-month value of keeping a girl chaste.

The program, which will be monitored by the government’s National Emergency Response Council on HIV and AIDs, has yet to release information on how it will determine a girl’s virginity, leading to speculation that some young girls will be ostracized if they fail to pass whatever inevitably invasive test the government decides to use.

Other HIV/AIDS prevention efforts in Swaziland, including a circumcision program, have proven effective in reducing the prevalence of the disease in young men. But in communities where polygamy is normalized, it makes sense that women and girls continue to suffer from high rates of infection.

Swaziland is not the first African country to offer payout deals for women to abstain from sex in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In 2005, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni proposed a chastity scholarship.*

During the George W. Bush-era "war on AIDS," funding was allocated to encourage the ABCs: Abstain from sex, Be faithful, and use a Condom. Even these programs were controversial in communities where polygamy is the norm or where sex educators chose to focus their efforts entirely on abstinence, leading to misunderstandings about the transmission of the deadly disease. But at least they didn’t put a price on a girl’s virginity, or place the blame on a vulnerable population often engaging in sex only as a means to buy basic necessities.

And it turns out $18 may not do the trick anyway. In interviews with local newspapers, one young girl said the government’s proposed stipend doesn’t compare to the amount a girl could receive from a sugar daddy for even just one sexual favor. Seems like the Swazi government grossly underestimated just how much skeezy old men are willing to pay for sex with a virgin.

"A girl could get R200 [18 U.S. dollars] for just one sex act," she said. "The government must pay more."

*Correction, Oct. 11, 2014: Yoweri Museveni is the president of Uganda. An earlier version of this article misstated his country. (Return to reading.)

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