KAMPALA, Uganda — Two love-struck teens. A secret affair. Feuding families that tear them apart. It has all the elements of "Romeo and Juliet," Uganda-style.
With her pink-and-white school uniform and shy grin, Maska Justine was just 14 when she caught the eye of Wakalanga Alex after her family moved to his middle-class neighborhood in Kampala.
Wakalanga, a slender boy two years older but still too young to shave, began a flirtation, sending love notes through a mutual friend. Soon the teenagers were walking home together from school, stealing kisses when no one was looking. A few months later, Wakalanga asked Maska if she wanted to "play sex." The young lovers rendezvoused on the dusty floor of his father's office-supplies kiosk.
Her pregnancy exposed the romance. In most parts of the world, such delicate situations would be handled privately, between families or tribes. But after his liaison with Maska became known, Wakalanga was sent to jail, where he awaits trial. Maska was left pregnant and heartbroken.
In Uganda, what Wakalanga did qualifies as a capital offense, technically punishable by death, though no such sentence has yet been rendered.
The East African nation has one of the toughest "defilement" laws anywhere when it comes to girls. Spurred by a burgeoning women's movement and a growing anti-AIDS campaign, Ugandan lawmakers in 1990 made it illegal for any person to engage in sexual intercourse with a girl younger than 18.
Unlike statutes in most other countries in Africa and the rest of the world, the law makes no distinction based upon whether the sex was consensual, or on the age of the alleged "defiler." Boys, however, cannot be defiled under the law, either by older women or men.
By contrast, in the United States, age of consent under statutory rape laws varies between 14 and 18, regardless of gender. In some states, such as California, the offense is only a misdemeanor if consenting participants are close in age.
The Uganda law was intended to crack down on pedophiles seducing girls or offering money in exchange for sex, a serious problem throughout Africa. With AIDS on the rise, older men prey on school-age girls, believing the risk of catching the disease to be lower. And some men believed tales that sleeping with virgins could cure AIDS.
But legal experts and children's advocates in Uganda now call the law misguided.
"We're going about this in the wrong way," said Evelyn B. Edroma, senior advisor to the Justice Ministry. "We're trying to fight a social vice. But you can't legislate against primal social behavior."
The law largely has failed to hit its intended targets. "Older men are buying their way out by paying the families," said Shanti Parikh, a professor at St. Louis-based Washington University who has studied sexuality in Uganda.
Instead, the defilement law is ensnaring hundreds of teenage boys like Wakalanga whose only offense was engaging in sex with their underage girlfriends. The average age of those arrested is 21.
"These are nothing more than young people finding out about life," said Geoffrey Odaga of Save the Children, an advocacy group in Kampala that is preparing to challenge the constitutionality of the law by arguing it discriminates against boys.
As many as 2,000 boys, most of them poor or abandoned by their families, are facing defilement charges, according to estimates from the Legal Aid Clinic in Kampala, which represents children and the poor. Several hundred are being held in jail or juvenile detention facilities because they or their families cannot afford bail while they await trial.
In many of these cases, charges eventually will be dropped.
Although adult men have been given prison sentences as long as 14 years, allegations against boys are usually dismissed when they involve consensual sex. Frequently, that's because the girls refuse to testify. (Many young couples, in fact, continue their relationships while the boys are incarcerated, with girls making furtive visits.)
Nevertheless, boys can find themselves caught up in the legal system for more than 18 months because Uganda's courts are flooded with defilement cases.
More than half of all capital cases pending before Uganda's high court are for defilement. Because of the potential death sentence, only the high court is permitted to hear them. Due partly to the backlog, the total number of pending cases has nearly doubled since 2003 to more than 6,000.
Uganda's prison system is ill-equipped to handle the boys. Despite a law that prohibits sending children to adult prisons, some boys barely into their teens spend days, weeks or even months in local jails, mixed in with killers, rapists and other hard-core criminals. The boys are often subjected to beatings and rape by the older inmates, putting them at risk for AIDS.