Schoolteacher Annet Nanozi was mad at her husband. A vehicle mechanic, he was refusing to help raise their four children. She realized he was instead spending his paycheck on alcohol and his time sleeping with barmaids. The 34-year-old decided to teach her husband a lesson. Now, when he comes home and wants sex, he needs to pay her first.
It’s a controversial strategy, but it’s picking up across Uganda, as increasingly emboldened women — backed by rights organizations — battle a patriarchal society where responsibilities and moral norms are both skewed against them. What started out with isolated instances in the capital, Kampala, has exploded into a tactic more and more Ugandan women are employing to get their husbands to pay up for household expenses and atone for refusing to take on home chores.
Three years ago, 150 women first reported demanding money from their husbands for sex to the Mothers Union, an Anglican organization that has been in Uganda for more than a century, says the body’s secretary, Ruth Nalugwa. That number increased to 5,000 by 2016, and now more than 30,000 women have reported employing the strategy, she says. The actual number of wives charging their husbands for sex may be greater, says Stella Muyana, the chairperson of Bakazibano, a Ugandan women’s rights organization. But her organization has recorded more than 31,000 cases, she says. In May, Uganda’s government-owned newspaper, The New Vision, reported on how what “started as a joke” is now “a reality.’”
The spread of this practice is dividing Ugandan society. Some husbands have agreed to pay up, and a few have turned more responsible toward their families. Others have refused to pay for sex, and in some instances, demands from wives have spiraled into domestic violence — and even occasional deaths. Some religious leaders and government ministers have weighed in against the practice, calling it immoral and irreligious.
But most women and rights organizations are supporting the strategy, arguing that any approach that gets irresponsible husbands to contribute toward the welfare of their families is justified. After all, it took hunger strikes and arson attacks from the suffragettes in the U.K. to drive a national conversation about voting rights for women.
“If the men are irresponsible and it is the only way their wives can get money from them to run the homes, let them go ahead and tax sex,” says Tina Musuya, a leading women’s rights activist and executive director of the nonprofit Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention (CEDOVIP).
For many women, the penalty or tax is as much about respect as it is about money. To Beatrice Atim, a vendor at Masaka market, 120 kilometers west of Kampala, it’s in part a way to get her husband to stop taking her for granted. Her husband, she says, would leave for work early in the morning, often without giving her money for expenses and expecting her to perform all household chores. After hearing about other women charging their husbands for sex, she decided to try it too. She demands that he pay 10,000 shillings ($3) if he wants her to have sex with him. It worked. “He accepted and he pays me without any quarrel because he knows that the money is to be used at home,” she says.
But in other cases, the response from husbands has been more complex. Thomas Owori, a taxi driver in the eastern town of Tororo, says he first refused to pay his wife for sex and even slapped her when she demanded money. Slowly though, he understood her reasons and gave in, he says. He now pays his wife 20,000 shillings ($6) each time they have sex.
To Philip Byabasaija, a shop attendant in Kampala, it’s unacceptable for a wife to charge her husband for sex. When his wife demanded money, he says he beat her up — and she gave up on the idea. “That is stupid. How can my wife charge me for sex?” he asks, indignantly.
Such is the prevalence — and acceptability — of wife beating in Uganda, that a recent survey found that 49 percent of Ugandan women justified husbands hitting them on one ground or another. That same survey found 18 percent of women saying it was understandable for husbands to hit their wives if they refused to have sex.
Women’s organizations know the scales are loaded against wives. The Mothers Union is trying to tutor women, through its branches across the country, to first explain to their husbands that the demands are in the family’s interests — and not a challenge to men, says Rebecca Nakwayi, chairperson of a Kampala branch of the organization.
But Uganda’s minister of ethics and integrity, Reverend Father Simon Lokodo, is against the growing practice. Sex with his wife is a man’s right, according to him. Denying a husband sex is unfair, says Lokodo. “Why should wives charge for sex in order to get economic gains?” he asks. To him, the practice shows “that moral fibers have gone so low.”
Activists like Musuya, though, are clear that if anything, it’s unfair to expect a woman to enjoy sex with a man who doesn’t pay the family’s bills. And Nanozi, the teacher, is confident she’s doing the right thing. Her husband, she says, had stopped paying even for the family’s food supplies. Not anymore.