Why masculine sexual privilege persists in Uganda

Impact. A health worker takes a blood sample from a woman during an HIV/Aids testing camp at Buhinga playgrounds in Fort Portal Municipality, Kabarole District, in April last year. FILE PHOTO

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Concern. Men’s multiple sexual partnerships have roots in pre-colonial Uganda and remains in practice today across the country. To some men, to prove they are men is having many women as sexual partners, writes Bamuturaki Musinguzi.

At 20, Christine officially married a man with a good job as a medical assistant. Over the next decade, they had five children together. But then her husband fell sick and died of HIV/Aids. From that point forward, she knew she too was infected, and because she was monogamous while her husband had two other long-term relationships during their marriage, she felt he was to blame.
But Christine was not embittered. She told Robert Wyrod” “At that time, people were not fearing HIV/Aids so much. They were not well informed.” In the course of the next decade, both her co-wives also died of HIV/Aids. But Christine never remarried after her husband’s death.

“As I listened to Christine’s story, I came to appreciate the devastating toll HIV/Aids had taken on her family. In addition to her husband and co-wives, she had lost a brother to the disease. She then started sharing her house with her younger sister, Mary, who was in the advanced stages of HIV/Aids too,” Wyrod writes in his new ethnography titled Aids and Masculinity in the African City.

“Like Christine, Mary believed her husband had infected her with HIV/Aids. Over the next six months, I watched as Mary slowly succumbed to the disease, even after gaining access to antiretroviral drugs. Christine was devastated by her death. The disturbing images of Mary’s frail body on their couch remain with me still, tempered only by memories of her courage and dry wit in the face of her suffering,” Wyrod adds.

Combating Aids
The first book to examine how the Aids epidemic has changed masculinity in Africa is based on Wyrod’s decade (2004-2015) of ethnographic research, fieldwork and interviews in the densely populated Bwaise slum community in the capital, Kampala.
This book reveals the persistence of masculine privilege in the age of Aids and the implications such privilege has for combating Aids across the African continent.
Aids has been a devastating plague in much of Sub-Saharan Africa, yet the long-term implications for gender and sexuality are just emerging. This book tackles this issue head-on and examines how Aids has altered the ways masculinity is lived in Uganda.

Christine, a 44-year-old widow has lived in Bwaise for more than two decades. Christine is treasurer of a Post-Test Club, and she has passionately channeled her own experience living with HIV into educating and counselling residents of Bwaise about Aids.
Christine survives by making and selling maandazi (sweet fried bread) – an effort that yields about $1 (Shs3,700) in profit per day.
Wyrod says this glimpse into Christine’s life encapsulates what motivated him to write about how Aids has shaped gender and sexuality in Uganda.

“Christine’s story reveals the ubiquity of Aids in a place like Bwaise and shows how the disease has become a pervasive aspect of everyday life. From my visits with Christine, it was obvious that Aids had not only ravaged her family but her community as well,” Wyrod says.
“Christine’s story is also emblematic of the many Ugandans who take action to address the disease, whether by being part of an Aids support group, or helping those afflicted with the disease, or simply by discussing Aids in a frank and open manner,” he adds.

According to Wyrod, most centrally for this book, Christine’s life also illustrates the role that gender relations have played in the epidemic. Both she and Mary claimed to be monogamous wives and believed they were infected with HIV by their husbands.
The book reveals some challenges to, but the ultimate persistence of, men’s sexual privileges in the age of Aids – a finding that provides an important corrective to the conventional portrayal of Uganda as Africa’s great Aids success story.

Men’s multiple sexual partnerships have roots in pre-colonial Uganda and remains in practice today across the country.
For example, the Baganda have a saying “Omusajja okusajjalaata” or “Omusajja alina okusajjalaata” (meaning that a man has to show his manhood, and should have those multiple partners).
According to Wyrod, to some men to prove they are men is having many women as sexual partners.
“However, they admit that Aids has complicated such already complex relationship dynamics, and they stress it was something they worried about a great deal,” he says.

Attentive. Mr Robert Wyrod (right) and other participants during the discussion of the book. COURTESY PHOTO

According to a Uganda Aids Commission (UAC) March 2014 report titled “District HIV/Aids Support Supervision and Follow up of HIV/Aids Activities Implemented in Local Governments,” the reported epidemic drivers included alcoholism, multiple sexual partnerships, commercial sex work and low condom use, among others.

According to the 2011 Uganda Aids Indicator Survey, three per cent of Ugandan women age 15-49 reported having two or more sexual partners in the past 12 months. Multiple sexual partnerships ranges from a low of one per cent of women in the South Western and West Nile regions to a high of five per cent in East Central region and Kampala.
The proportion of men aged 15-49, who had two or more sexual partners in the past 12 months, is more than six times higher than the proportion of women (19 per cent versus three per cent). Among men, multiple sexual partnerships are most common in the East Central (31 per cent) and Mid-Western (25 per cent) regions.

“…While many conventional approaches to HIV prevention in Uganda continue to focus on promoting monogamy and ‘being faithful’, in my view the number of sexual partners a man or women has is not the key issue. I make the case, instead, that a serious engagement with the persistence of men’s privileges to dictate the terms of sex and the freedom to choose, on their own, to establish multiple sexual partnerships is crucial to efforts to address Aids in Uganda, as well as the many other African countries affected by HIV,” Wyrod observes.
In the urban Ugandan context, Wyrod uses the term masculine sexual privilege to refer to both men’s authority to dictate the terms of sex and a man’s right to multiple sexual partners if he so chooses, whether they are wives, girlfriends, or shorter-term partners.
Economic insecurity and gender-based violence combine to impede women’s ability to negotiate safe sex.

According to Wyrod, relationship pressures over money and family intensify to the point that the man, and occasionally the woman, began exploring other relationships.
“There was much starting, stopping, and overlap in relationships in Bwaise, all exacerbated by poverty and the persistence of masculine sexual privilege,” he says.

Gender tensions
Men’s identity as family providers was such a poignant topic for Wyrod’s informants. What this book reveals is that gender tensions were also deeply intertwined with sexuality, including the ways some men sought to shore up an embattled masculinity through their intimate relationships.
Wyrod notes that women’s increasing access to education allows some women to not only provide supplementary income, but actually compete with men as primary providers, which raises questions of authority in the household. Novel ideas of women’s rights and gender equity have also gained legitimacy and frame contemporary tensions and negotiations in new ways.

The majority of men Wyrod interacted with in his fieldwork were receptive to expanded women’s rights, so long as these did not undermine their authority within the home.
For such men, women’s rights should be limited in scope and not synonymous with equality between men and women.

Women marrying men, building house, owning businesses and land today are changing gender relations in Uganda. Women have acquired associated resources and are challenging their husband’s authority.
Wyrod notes that men are acknowledging the shifting gender relations and are still grappling with how these changes are affecting the meaning of manhood in Uganda.
Most men are against testing for HIV with their wives which leaves the latter with few options to negotiate greater sexual safety in their relationships with their husbands.

According to Wyrod, women expressed frustration about having limited ability to influence their husband’s sexual behaviour. They also expressed a great deal of frustration about how their male partners dealt with the disease, especially the denial of HIV infection.
Although some women have chosen monogamy as their primary protection strategy, they are well aware of the limitations of this approach. For example, if there are two wives in a polygamous marriage, one wife will never know what her co-wife is doing to protect herself from HIV infection through extra relationships, or the husband sticking to his two wives.

Wyrod observes that although some women are concerned about men’s sexuality, they are nonetheless willing to accommodate their husband’s desires to have more than one sexual partner, so long as they remained attentive to them and their children.
A common trend that Wyrod observed among HIV positive men in Bwaise was their struggle with disclosing their HIV status to their wives for fear that the wives could leave them and they would die alone.

Book cover. Mr Robert Wyrod’s book.

Multiple partners
Wyrod observes that the right to have multiple sexual partners was a reservoir of privilege that men could draw on when their relationships became stressed, often due to financial problems.
“This was especially common when a couple’s children entered school and the financial responsibilities for men increased. It is important to underscore that these types of concurrent, overlapping, long-term relationships are now recognised as especially effective ways of transmitting HIV,” he says.

In 15 months of fieldwork in Bwaise, Wyrod rarely encountered women with sexual lives as complicated as those of many men.
“…Yet my fieldwork also made evident the social and health risks women with multiple partners faced, making me believe women’s claims to monogamy were not dramatically exaggerated. The handful of women who told me they were sleeping with more than one man nearly always asserted they did it out of economic necessity. Both women and men frequently told me that money was the main reason women sought out additional sexual partners,” he notes.

“The Aids epidemic has made men’s control over the terms of sex and men’s privilege of having multiple sexual partners more convoluted and contentious. Yet while Aids has complicated aspects of masculine sexual privilege, it has not truly challenged it…,” Wyrod observes, adding: “Given Uganda’s success in fighting Aids – a success believed to be predicated in part on men reducing their sexual partnerships – the persistence of male masculine sexual privilege is unexpected at first glance…”

About the book
Aids and Masculinity in the African City was released by University of California Press in July 2016.
The 312-page book that is divided into six chapters was launched in Kampala in July 2017.
The book is going for $30 on Amazon. In Kampala, Aristoc bookshop has agreed to sell the book.
Aids and Masculinity in the African City won the 2017 Sex and Gender Section Distinguished Book Award by the American Sociological Association, and the 2017 Eileen Basker Memorial Prize from the American Anthropological Association’s Society for Medical Anthropology.

It received the 2017 Human Rights Section Gordon Hirabayashi Human Rights Book Award, Honorable Mention.
Wyrod received his PhD in Sociology from the University of Chicago and is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Women and Gender Studies and the International Affairs Programme at the University of Colorado Boulder.


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