“Eat and you will be eaten”: a qualitative study exploring costs and benefits of age-disparate sexual relationships in Tanzania and Uganda: implications for girls’ sexual and reproductive health interventions

Joyce Wamoyi, Ana Maria Buller, Daniel Nyato, Nambusi Kyegombe, Rebecca Meiksin, Lori Heise Reproductive Health, 2018; Read the full paper online

Age-disparate sex is heterosexual intercourse with a non-marital partner ten plus years older. In sub-Saharan Africa, these relationships are characterised by romantic/sexual involvement between adolescent girls and younger women (AGYW) and older men and may involve transactional sex. These relationships have been found to increase AGYW’s risk of HIV and other sexual and reproductive health (SRH) problems.

This study sought the views of both groups on the motivations and perceived benefits of engaging in such relationships and on the social and SRH consequences.

Qualitative data collection included 37 participatory focus group discussions and 87 in-depth interviews with young people (female and male) aged 14–24 and adult men and women aged 25–49 in rural and urban Tanzania and Uganda. 

Findings: 

AGYW identified the primary reasons for sex with older men as: financial benefit, emotional support and meeting social expectations. Adult men identified: pleasure; desire to “test new flavours”; prestige; and the belief that AGYW were HIV negative. The social and SRH consequences were understood to be: risk of coercion and violence, stigma, unplanned pregnancy and risk of sexually transmitted infections including HIV.

Conclusions: 

Interventions need to engage AGYW and older men in a critical reflection process on the consequences of engaging in age-disparate relationships, especially those that involve transactional sex. Interventions should also tackle the structural constraints AGYW face so they can access resources, become empowered and challenge the expectation of having to depend financially on men. Interventions with men should address social norms, specifically those supporting the notion of men being naturally hypersexual.

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