Next target in AIDS fight: sugar daddies

The luring of teen women by older, wealthier men is a key factor in the spread of AIDS.

It started with an innocent-enough invitation to a young beauty named Brenda: It was from a longtime family friend - a high-school teacher with a wife and children, who brought presents for everyone when he came to visit. He asked Brenda to go away with him, alone, on vacation to a lush national park.

At first, Brenda worried something bad would happen. But her favorite aunt encouraged her: "He's a good man," she said. "Go ahead."

Thus began the slow seduction of Brenda by a man 27 years her senior. And was it so bad? After all, her aunt approved - even if Brenda was too scared to tell her mom. Plus, he gave Brenda lots of goodies, making her friends envious. But before she knew it, Brenda became part of Africa's "sugar daddy" culture - a widespread but quiet fact of life on a continent where young women are often economically and socially vulnerable. Yet now the phenomenon is increasingly being tackled as a key social and moral factor in the spread of AIDS.

The consequences of the sugar-daddy phenomenon are significant - and mostly have to do with the limited view young women have of themselves, says Patience Namanyagulu, a university student and leader of "Go Getters," a program that persuades women to rebuff sugar daddies. "If we fail to see the potential in ourselves," she adds, "we face the consequences alone."

Indeed, 10.3 percent of Ugandan women aged 15-24 have HIV/AIDS, compared with 2.8 percent of men, according to a 2003 government report. Experts attribute the gap largely to sugar daddies. Also, a Columbia University study found that women aged 15-19 whose partners were 10 or more years older were at double the risk of contracting AIDS than those with partners 0 to 4 years older.

But for Brenda, the joys outweighed the risks, at first. The three-day vacation was fun and innocent, she says. Nothing happened. But then he told her he wanted to date her. When she hesitated, he insisted. He even said the fact he hadn't forced himself on her at the park proved his good intentions. When she relented, he showered her with presents such as shoes, earrings, and - after a month of dating - a new cellphone.

Her friends even got jealous. "I wish I could have a man like yours," they'd tell her. "It was prestigious for me," she says. Besides, Brenda's dad had disappeared long ago, and this man "was really caring," she says. "He took me as his daughter."

But his intentions were far from fatherly. He wanted sex, and she couldn't say no, she says. He refused to use any protection against AIDS, but reassured her: "If you get pregnant, I'll look after the kid."

Studies find older men represent a far-greater AIDS risk for young women. They're more likely to have HIV/AIDS than younger men, and, as sugar daddies, they often prevail over a woman on the issue of protection. "He will give you all the things you want, but you have to follow his rules," says Tirisa Bonareri, a grad student and member of the Go Getters club.

There are also more-subtle reasons young women accept sugar daddies. Due to a traditional African deference-to-elders wisdom, many young women believe an older man is wiser in the ways of sex. Also, the respect children here must show elders makes it harder for young women to reject an older man's advances.

Often family members approve, seeing the arrangement as financially useful. Brenda's sugar daddy sometimes even gave money to her aunt, who had encouraged the relationship from the start.

Sugar daddies often succeed because young women crave the modern consumer comforts they usually can't afford. So, with a few clothes or a mobile phone, a man "can expect to have sex with the young woman," says Musinguzi, a 38-year-old sugar daddy, who was interviewed by a research firm here. When it comes to sex, he says, sugar daddies have all the control: "If she refuses, she loses," he says.

Sugar daddies also "get social reinforcement when they bring a university student into the [restaurant]," says Sam Ngonga of Population Services International, a nonprofit group that organized Go Getters.

But so often it ends badly. After two years of dating, Brenda discovered her man had taken up with a dorm-mate of hers. In fact, university dorms are frequent sugar-daddy trolling grounds, students here say. Brenda was devastated: "I still loved him."

Whether you're distracted by a sugar daddy's demands on your time - or despondent over his inevitable departure, "you end up not concentrating on your books, so this man has closed down your dreams," says Ms. Bonareri.

Uganda, long a leader in anti-AIDS efforts, is tackling the issue:

• Government-sponsored posters in schools warn, "Beware of Sugar Daddies!"

• One member of parliament is promoting "chastity scholarships" for young women as an economic counterweight to sugar daddies.

• A radio soap opera features characters who get into sugar-daddy relationships - and discover their downsides.

• A PSI campaign uses a Golden-Rule approach. Showing a picture of a middle-aged man, it says, "Would you let this man be with your 18-year-old daughter? So why are you with his?"

Across Africa, anti-sugar-daddy campaigns are on the rise. A social-marketing group in Cameroon, for instance, held a recent protest march. In Ghana, preachers have begun speaking out.

For Brenda, discovering Go Getters put her affair in context. "These people just want to use you," she says, embarrassed at her naiveté. Now she works an extra job to earn money. Unlike the affair, she says confidently, "I can put that on my [résumé]."

She exults, though, about the end of the story. After her ex-sugar daddy was spurned by her dorm-mate, he tried to entice Brenda again. "I just gave him the Go Getters handouts," she says with an impish grin. "And he hasn't come around again."

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