Cross-generational relationships in Uganda provide illusion of security

Jane Nannono, 20, is a resident of Kampala, Uganda and in a cross-generational relationship. Her now husband is 60 years old, and the father to her three-year-old twin daughters. Nannono, like many others, says that her relationship began as a way to seek stable income for her family. Now, over four years later, it has become a marriage based in love and commitment. (Nicole McPheeters | The Media School)

KAMPALA, UGANDA – Jane Nannono sits in a blue chair on a small patch of land tucked behind Bombo Road in Wandegeya, a neighborhood in the capital city of Uganda. Her upturned eyes are polished with lavender eyeshadow that contrasts the scarlet lipstick swept over her lower lip. Multicolored beads hold up her short hair.

Jane, 20, is married to a man 40 years her senior.

“By the time we started, that man, I found that he was rich, I get excited to be with him,” she says.

Relationships where the man is much older than the woman are common in Uganda, but it is fairly rare that the young woman marries her older boyfriend. Jane’s story is different. After starting a relationship with her boyfriend and having his twins, Jane married her husband. He was 58. She was 19.

By the time I got pregnant, we were meeting for call,” Jane says. “And the time I got pregnant, he was there and I told him. That’s why he decided to be with me and to love me so much. And I gave him the treasure of twins.”

Jane says that the birth of her twins was what convinced her then-boyfriend to devote himself to her and no one else.

“I was scared,” she says. “But, I told him and he told me ‘Don’t scare. I know it is mine, and I will be giving you any, any, everything you want and you need, I’ll be giving to you.’”

According to research reports of the Overseas Development Institute, cross-generational relationships are between an adolescent girl and a man who is at least 10 years older. AVERT says that these relationships are often transactional in nature, which is why the older men are referred to as “sugar daddies”.

Jane says she married her husband because it was her choice, but that’s not typical of relationships between young women and older men. Usually these marriages are forced.

There are cross-generational relationships arranged by family members that are not associated with sugar daddies. Arranged marriages are common in Uganda, according to Susan Ajok, executive director of Straight Talk Foundation, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that addresses reproductive health and HIV prevention issues of young people in Uganda.

“We’ve had situations where families have arranged marriages for their daughters,” Ajok said. “Of course, it’s a harmful practice, it raises concerns of defilement if this girl is under 18, and then also the economic hardships. I think basically for many families, economic hardship in the home is what is also driving people.”

According to a 2016 study by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 10 percent of girls in Uganda are married by age 15 and 40 percent are married by age 18. The younger the bride, the more a suitor is willing to pay for her. This leads to marriages with large age differences between the husbands and wives.

Jane says she was initially frightened by the age gap between her and her eventual husband, but she decided that dating an older man was a good thing because such men tend to be more responsible and caring.

“The first time I got scared, about his age and my age,” she says. “When you get man with the same age, you know, he doesn’t care on you, you know? But, what we do, you can marry that one who is older than you so that he has care for you. He can show you all of the responsibilities, he can give you good caring, whatever, and he had his money.”

Jane says that when she started dating her husband, she and her family were impoverished. Her mother did not have a job and her father died a long time ago. Her husband has provided financial security to her family members since early in their relationship.

Despite their four-decade age gap, Jane thought it best to marry her then-boyfriend. In Ugandan culture, it is commonly thought that younger men tend to be less responsible and reliable. For Jane, both of these traits were a necessity she found in her husband. (Nicole McPheeters | The Media School)

“Sometimes when I told him my sister, she needs some school things, she needs this one, he gave it to me,” she says. “When they need some requirements to buy, and I gave him the budget, he give me the money and I’ll go shop those things. When there is a problem at our home, at my mother’s home, I told him and he helps me in that case.”

Poverty is one of the leading drivers of cross-generational relationships. It is also prevalent among university women, according to Annah Kukundakwe, programs manager of Uganda Youth and Adolescents Health Forum (UYAHF), an NGO that implements livelihood projects to empower and educate young people.

“It’s still basically the same thing because you actually find out that while there’s women attending university they’re still paying their own tuition. They’re still paying their own cost of fees,” Kukundakwe said. “Everything is just up to them so they’re looking to their sugar daddies just for their survival.”

University women experience economic insecurity but they possess greater knowledge of sexual and reproductive health and rights. Kukundakwe said this makes it easier for them to exercise some control in sexual relationships.

“For them, at university level they are feeling empowered,” Kukundakwe said. “They can negotiate for condom use. That’s the bigger difference.”

But this is not always the case. Oftentimes, relationships based on transactions of sex for financial security are rampant with gender and power inequality. When these relationships are cross-generational, women have more difficulty asking their partners to wear condoms, increasing the risk of HIV infection.

Gabriel Amori, national coordinator of Uganda Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by AIDS (UNERELA+), says that this issue is exacerbated by the unequal power dynamic in cross-generational relationships.

“Being on the receiving end, it means that what proposals that come from the adult person usually are right,” Amori said. “And usually it takes long before the person begins to be assertive. By which time, if it is exposure to HIV, it’s too late.”

HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, is a sexually transmitted infection that if left untreated leads to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). While an HIV infection may not exhibit symptoms for years, it weakens the body’s immune system until it is nearly defenseless. At that point, AIDS develops and is accompanied by myriad painful and potentially fatal opportunistic infections. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, these include tuberculosis, recurring pneumonia, Kaposi’s sarcoma and wasting syndrome.

According to a 2015 report by UNAIDS, there are 1.5 million people living with HIV in Uganda, equating to a 7.1 percent adult HIV prevalence. Young women and girls are disproportionately affected by the virus, with women 15 years and older accounting for over half of these infections.

Jane says that after the first time she had sex with her husband, she was worried that he might be infected wit
h HIV. That is why she made the decision for them to get tested together.

“I decided because I heard rumors saying that those rich men, they carry HIV, you know? He may get you when he has lost his wife, like that,” she says. “Now, I scared, and I told him, ‘If you want to be with me, we are going just go to the medical checkup.’ And I told him, ‘Not at your own clinic. For me I’m going to take you to the clinic I want,’ because I won’t know to trust him at that time.”

This was not the first time Jane had asserted herself in her relationship. When she suspected that her then-boyfriend was just using her for sex, she confronted him.

“At that time, I had my own questions,” she says. “I first ask him that, ‘Did you want to use me and leave me?’ He told me, ‘No. I want you as a person.’”

Jane’s husband was exceptional in this regard.

Jane Nannono understood the risks of contracting HIV from an older man. To best protect herself, she insisted she and her then-boyfriend go to the same medical clinic to get tested. They were both HIV negative. (Nicole McPheeters | The Media School)

According to Ibrahim Batambuze, communications and advocacy officer of Reach a Hand Uganda, an NGO devoted to educating young people about reproductive health and rights in engaging ways, it is not uncommon for young girls to be misinformed about sexual health and HIV prevention. He said older men who are HIV-positive take advantage of this information gap to have sex with young, vulnerable girls.

“These older partners, in most cases, some who even have HIV and AIDS, some of the things that they want to do is just pass it on, they want to pass on the virus,” Batambuze said. “They might be on a mission to, maybe they got the HIV from someone else, but now they want to also pass it on to other people.”

Gorreti Nagawa, programs director at UYAHF, agreed with this assertion.

“It truly happens but I think it’s because of the frustrations, and then it brings out an innate maybe jealousy that they have HIV and then the other person doesn’t have it,” Nagawa said.

Older men can further take advantage of young girls who lack parental guidance, according to Amori. He said that in Uganda, girls tend to be much closer to their fathers than their mothers.

“The parenting levels that have gone low in our society today have pressured some of the girls that have admired how their peers’ parents take care of them,” Amori said. “So that kind of pressure, she may meet a man, mature man, who provides that kind of opportunity, and may wish to have a parental arm around her because of that.”

Young girls also experience pressure from their peers to enter into cross-generational relationships in which they can exchange sex for pocket money, new clothes or a smartphone.

“We’ve seen girls being enticed with material stuff,” Ajok said. “Like you meet an older man who’s willing to give you so much money, who’s willing to buy you the car you like, who’s willing to buy you the smartphone that you want, or even rent you an apartment to live in, and you’re in a sexual relationship with him.”

Ajok said that even though luxury items such as these are not necessary, young girls feel pressure to have to them to fit in with their friends.

Jane says her husband takes her to the salon to get her hair done and that he built her a house with her own room when she had their twins. She says they also go to beaches, clubs, and that he gives her a good amount of his time.

Jane says that she and her husband do not fight, but they sometimes quarrel the way all husbands and wives do. She says his apology always comes with a gift.

Wealth was not Jane’s only consideration in deciding to be with her husband.

“At the start, for me I have my conditions. I don’t just start a love like that,” she says. “As me, I give myself time seeing you, how is your nature, what do you do, what do you like, like that, not say I just wanted him because of his money.”

Although Jane’s cross-generational relationship is now based on love, she would not advise her twin daughters and other young girls to enter into such a relationship.

“It won’t be good to other girls. Because to me, I may say that I had my own blessings,” she says. “Sometimes when meeting an older guy like that who has his problems, maybe he is HIV-positive, wants to just use you.”

Despite the success of her own relationship, Jane says she would not advise her daughters to follow in her footsteps. Jane’s case is rare, and cross-generational relationships are largely unsuccessful. (Nicole McPheeters | The Media School)

Nicole McPheeters contributed to the reporting of this story. See a photo story by her here.