The Observer (Kampala)

29 November 2012

Uganda: Death of the Virgin Bride? Men Now Need to Test the Waters

Keila Nalulele is as saved as humanly possible. She fasts, tithes and never misses a church activity.

But when it comes to issues of sex before marriage, her advice to her daughters is anything but godly.

"Which man is going to marry you if you do not give him a taste of what you have to offer?" she asks. "Gone are the days when a man would marry you without 'tasting.'"

In a highly sexed world, traditional and religious norms are fast being cast aside in order to live up to the sexy demands. Marriage and its mundane niceties have long lost their novelty. Up to an estimated 80% of couples are in de facto marriages before they actually tie the knot. Many of these marriage-like unions have borne children. And the prized virginity cookie is but a myth being held onto by hopeful romantics.

"Men have come to live with the fact that because of the high levels of sexual awareness and exploration, they just cannot find virgins," says Eric Mugarura, a single man in his 20s. "I value virginity but I know I cannot find it."

Mugarura adds that today, the best a man can wish for is a girl who has not been around the block too much - preferably one who is less experienced than he is.

"We [men] like to feel like we are in control," he explains.

The virgin bride complete with a white untouched veil is but a dead symbol flaunted by almost every bride without even thinking. But who cares? It seems that for both men and women, the essence of the race is to get as many conquests as possible.

And yes, you might be quick to protest, believing that women are not up to conquests. But the statistics indicate otherwise, with more and more women habouring no qualms about having numerous sexual partners in their lifetime.

While for men it is about the quantity of partners (man, how many girls have you floored?), for women it is about the quality (who is the richest most famous man you have been with)? And so goes the story of the endangered no-sex-before marriage rule.

Cohabitating:

But while there are people who will eat from the cookie jar until kingdom come but still preserve the actual moving in until the relationship is formalised, many others have skipped the formalities and live together for several years. It is possible that the majority are in this kind of relationship.

"Cohabitation should be recognised as a form of marriage," says Asaf Asiimwe, a lawyer.

Asiimwe echoes the stand of women rights activists who contributed to having a provision recognising cohabiting couples as married set out in the two-decade shelved Marriage and Divorce Bill.

Cohabiting couples are also a high HIV risk group, but they do not enjoy the same social protection and welfare improvement efforts enjoyed by their married counterparts who are equally at risk.

Thus to those who are pro-marriage by cohabitation like Asiimwe, it is only fair that those cohabiting benefit equally - they are in more or less the same position as married people. Our neighbours in Kenya have recently embraced this stand and now cohabiting for six months is all it takes to be recognised as a married couple.

Aside from risks without benefits, research also shows that couples who cohabit before marriage are more likely to get divorced. This, psychologists say, stems from the fact that most cohabiting couples get married as a fix to their already-existing problems.

The marriage then amplifies rather than solves their issues. This juxtaposes with the euphoria of newlyweds that makes a spouse's faults more bearable.

Why taste?

But why would a person choose the uncertain waters of cohabitating to the excitement of a proper wedding and getting to know each other, growing in life together...? Speaking about the numerous clients who come to him after being caught in the web of cohabitation, Asiimwe says:

"There are too many requirements [for marriage]. There is the introduction- which I think is utterly useless. A couple has to pay church fees of over Shs 300,000. And then there is the fact that marriage is supposed to be until death; this drives away many people. The law relating to marriage is very funny and unreasonable."

Religion and cohabitating:

The church and mosque are the major custodians of the institution of marriage and they join couples on behalf of the state. Yet through high fees and bureaucracy, they are seemingly driving more and more couples into marriage taste drives that never seem to amount to actual purchases.

The no-sex-before-marriage rule is one of those most breached laws of Allah, says Yaaqub Abu Sayyaf, a sheikh and community leader. He adds that the rule is not just breached by believers but by the religious leaders themselves.

Harriet Nabuduwa, a Christian counsellor, acknowledges that it is hard for religious views on piety and sexual purity to compete with the numerous sexually saturated messages that bombard young people's minds every day.

Yet, religious leaders are unanimous that the solution to sex before marriage is not opening the gates of marriage to all and sundry, but rather to people who are truly ready. For them, marriage remains sacred and there must remain some "limitations" as to who may join in.

"I taste because I can"

"Really, around Kampala, everyone is cohabiting," observes Asiimwe.

While some cohabit with the intention of getting married someday, for others cohabitation is an end in itself. Joel Kurika has been cohabiting with his girlfriend for six years.

"I and my woman do not wish to get married. We are happy the way we are. Why fix what is not broken?"

For the Kurikas of this world, religious dogma and the threat of burning in eternal fire does not count for much.

"It is good to know that she stays with me because she wants to, not because she has to," he says.

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