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– The team at Les Glorieuses
October 25, 2021
Reading time : 4 minutes
Ugandan sex workers are being driven further underground by new law and Covid measures
By Evelyn Lirri
For the decade Nakato has been a sex worker, she says she has faced a constant stream of abuse, from her clients, from police and from the community at large.
“I have been arrested several times and each time I have to pay police money in order to be released,” says Nakato, a peer-educator who helps younger sex workers navigate the hostile environment in which they operate. She did not want to use her full name for this story for safety reasons. “Some days you don’t have the money to pay and they keep you in custody for a long time.”
Sex work in Uganda is both criminalised and highly stigmatised, with those involved in it often subjected to violence and discrimination, from the people who procure their services to the law enforcement agencies who use the excuse of minor offences such as being idle and disorderly to lock them up.
Now, new legislation – the Sexual Offences Bill 2019, which was passed by parliament in May 2021 – is being described by human rights groups as an additional setback in the effort to protect the rights of sexual and gender minorities in the country, including sex workers.
President Yoweri Museveni has not yet assented to the bill, and has instead asked parliament to revise it, arguing that some of the offences that the new law criminalises are already covered under the Penal Code Act. It is still unclear whether it will be brought back for discussion.
The colonial era-Penal Code Act already prohibits sex work, along with sex between people of the same gender. Yet sex worker groups say the new law is having an effect even without being put into effect.
“The impact of the new law is already being witnessed,” says Macklean Kyomya from the Alliance of Women Advocating for Change, a grassroots network of female sex worker-led organisations. “We have documented cases of violence against sex workers. Hotspots are being raided by the police and they are extorting money.”
She says the police are now citing the Sexual Offences Bill rather than the Penal Code when arresting sex workers. Kyomya says these intensified acts of harassment and intimidation could drive sex workers further underground and limit their access to essential sexual and reproductive health services such as contraceptives and HIV testing and treatment.
Heloísa Marques for Impact x Les Glorieuses
Sex workers are some of the most economically and socially marginalised people in Uganda. Over the years, while efforts by activists to push for decriminalisation and protection of sex worker’s rights have gained momentum and visibility, the law has gone in the opposite direction.
That’s why rights advocates are also demanding that amendments be made to the new law, arguing that it should take into account the full spectrum of human rights of diverse groups.
“If a law negates the needs and rights of one group in society, it is by that very nature discriminatory. Uganda as a signatory to the different international and regional human rights instruments must reflect these promises and obligations in domestic law,” Akina Mama wa Afrika, a pan-African feminist organization based in Kampala, said in a statement on the bill.
The pandemic has also created new challenges for sex workers. Bars and nightclubs, where most sex workers operate from have been closed since March 2020 as part of Uganda’s measures to contain Covid-19. A nationwide dusk-to-dawn curfew has been in place for the past 18 months, forcing many to find new ways to reach clients.
“We have resorted to meeting our clients during the day and sleeping at night. But the clients are fewer since they also tend to be people who work during the day,” Nakato says.
Fewer clients also mean less income for women like Nakato who have families to feed and bills to pay. On a good day, she makes 70,000 shillings (€17 or $19), but on some days, she makes far less. Before the pandemic, she was making between 100,000 and 150,000 shillings a day.
“Sometimes, you have to risk working in the night. But there are police everywhere enforcing curfew and when they find you, you get arrested,” she says.
Besides challenges of navigating new ways to meet clients, sex workers are also excluded from the social benefits the government has extended to vulnerable communities during the pandemic.
“People had to be registered with their local councils in order to benefit from government relief food,” Kyomya says. “Many local leaders refused to register sex workers just because they said they were involved in illegal work. We had to fundraise to provide food for the most vulnerable among our peers.”
“This kind of discrimination is why we are pushing for decriminalisation of sex work,” she says. “Sex workers should be recognised as human beings first of all, and not what society brands us to be.”
– Evelyn Lirri is a freelance journalist based in Kampala, Uganda.
– Heloísa Marques is a visual artist whose principal mediums are embroidery and collage.
This issue of IMPACT was prepared by Heloísa Marques, Megan Clement, Rebecca Amsellem and Steph Williamson from the team at Les Glorieuses.
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