Toxic Masculinities and the Spread of HIV in Uganda

8 May 2018

Although HIV rates continue to decrease in Uganda, it is still significantly more prevalent among women than men. According to a 2016-17 national survey, 7.6% of women are living with HIV compared to 4.7% of men. This disparity is particularly alarming among 15-24 years old for whom the disease is four times higher in females than males. The reasons behind this disparity are complex, but largely boil down to different forms of gender inequality. This includes the ongoing adherence to traditional male gender roles in which men are expected to be dominant. It is perhaps telling, for example, that young women in Uganda who have experienced domestic violence by a partner are 50% more likely to have acquired HIV than women who have not.

Robert Wyrod, Associate Professor at the University of Colorado and author of AIDS and Masculinity in the African City, explains that traditional relationship dynamics also contribute to these inequalities. “There is a sense that younger women are drawn to relationships with older men who can provide support…and those older men are much more likely to be HIV positive,” he says. “It becomes a vicious cycle of economic inequality plus gender inequality”. Wyrod continues that women can also remain at risk even once they are married. “Men’s persistent sexual privileges mean that they often have other partners in marriage, normally secretly,” he says. “If women confront their husbands it can be disastrous for them – they can face violence. And so that slightly older bracket of women are also vulnerable to infection.”

According to Wyrod, systemic poverty and traditional notions of masculinity are now the key barriers to tackling the HIV crisis. “While there are some organisations in Africa involving men in AIDS prevention, we haven’t seen a similarly enthusiastic attempt by governments to talk about men’s privileges and men’s sexual privileges,” he says. “But the clearest source of all these problems,” he says, “is the persistence of urban poverty”.

Back at the positive living group, its founder Israel Bendaki, 55, proudly displays the sandals and bags they have been making. “I started this group to help men living in denial,” he says. “When I was diagnosed in 1990, I concealed my status and resorted to drinking to take away my worries.” The situation has been vastly improved since then, he says, when there was no medical treatment available and the stigma was so strong that people “wouldn’t even share a cup with you”.

But there is still a long way to go. Most men continue to keep silent about their positive status in Uganda, while young women remain disproportionately affected in an environment of toxic masculinities. Although Bendaki’s initiative is labelled a “men’s group”, it is mostly made up of women.

Read the full article online here.