Togo's 'Virgin Queens' spread no-sex message
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 rely 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 youth organisation AV-Jeunes.
Kombate, a 21-year-old student in the third year of a science technology and social education degree course, 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.
The head of AV-Jeunes, Rodrigue Akolly, said the competition, open to those from 16 to 24, has social and health aims.
"We're working in the main to reduce early pregnancy and new HIV or Aids infections.
"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," he added.
The virginity test is done by a team of gynaecologists 48 hours before the "coronation".
The 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."