"They arrested me for loving a schoolgirl": ethnography, HIV, and a feminist assessment of the age of consent law as a gender-based structural intervention in Uganda

Soc Sci Med. 2012 Jun;74(11):1774-82. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.06.037. Epub 2011 Jul 21.


In 1990 women's rights activists in Uganda successfully lobbied to amend the Defilement Law, raising the age of sexual consent for adolescent females from fourteen to eighteen years old and increasing the maximum sentence to death by hanging. The amendment can be considered a macro-level intervention designed to address the social and health inequalities affecting young women and girls, particularly their disproportionately high rate of HIV as compared to their male counterparts. While the intention of the law and aggressive campaign was to prosecute "sugar daddies" and "pedophiles," the average age of men charged with defilement was twenty-one years old and many were believe to be "boyfriends" in consensual sexual liaisons with the alleged victims. This article uses court records, case studies, and longitudinal ethnographic data gathered in east-central Uganda to examine the impact of the age of consent law at national and local levels, and specifically what the disjunctures between national intentions and local uses reveal about conflicting views about sexual privilege and rights. I argue that existing class, gender, and age hierarchies have shaped how the Defilement Law has been applied locally, such that despite the stated aim of "protecting" young women, the law reinstates patriarchal privilege (especially against men of lower social class) while simultaneously increasing the regulation of adolescent female sexuality and undermining their autonomy. This paper demonstrates how ethnography and critical gender theory-which emphasizes the intersectionality of gender, age, and class in the (re)production of inequalities-can be used to examine consequences of macro-level interventions in ways that may be undetected in conventional public health evaluation techniques but that are crucial for designing and modifying effective interventions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Anthropology, Cultural*
  • Crime*
  • Female
  • Feminism*
  • HIV Infections / prevention & control*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Law Enforcement*
  • Male
  • Pedophilia
  • Uganda