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How sex workers are exploited in Northern Uganda

(Last Updated On: 9 January 2024)

Gulu | Growing up in Northern Uganda, Atim (not real name) was sexually abused. She became pregnant with twins at 15 and was forced to leave school- without completing her primary education.

She moved from her village to Gulu City six years later in 2019 when friends said she might find a good job in the city. She had nowhere to stay and ended up becoming a sex worker to support herself and her two children.

While sex work offers some financial support, it is illegal in Uganda, making sex workers vulnerable to rape, violence, and even death.

Atim says there is also a lot of competition among sex workers. Sometimes they go on the streets and no one buys their services so they end up earning nothing.

“Other times, when that man buys you [your services], you negotiate, but the man does not pay you,” she said.

When sex workers ask men to use condoms, Atim says some openly refuse, and this increases the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

“We are even being raped by policemen. They come on the streets to chase us away, and if we stay on the streets to work, the policemen force you to have sex,” Atim said.

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This publication received information from a police officer who requested anonymity that when sex workers are arrested, if they do not have money for a bribe, they are asked to offer “anything they have.”

Jeborah (other names withheld to protect her identity), another female sex worker in Gulu, has been arrested four times.

“The police abuse us and at times they also take advantage of us,” she said. “When a policeman arrests you, he takes you to a police station because you do not have money. He asks, ‘what can you offer if you want to leave the cell?’ You say, ‘I have nothing, I don’t have money.’ So, the only thing you can do is to have sex with him, then he will release you.”

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Jeborah said police cells are being used to rape women and that many women, including herself, have become pregnant from this rape.

In a recent interview, David Ongom Mudong, the Aswa West Region Police spokesperson, denied that police officers are sexually assaulting sex workers.

“If any police officer has asked for a bribe from a suspect, he or she should be reported immediately to our senior officers so that he or she is punished for that,” Mudong said.

Jeborah (not real name) another sex worker suggests this is easier said than done. “You cannot report him anywhere because sex work is illegal here,” she said.

In December 2022, the Inspector General of Police, Martin Ochola directed police officers to stop arresting sex workers and gamblers with immediate effect three days after the Constitutional Court nullified the offense of being “rogue and vagabond” in the Penal Code Act.

In his statement, Ochola said that any police officer found arresting any person on offenses related to gambling or sex work will face the police disciplinary court. Despite this directive, such arrests continue in Gulu.

“I think that both sex work and abortion should be legalized in Uganda to reduce the stigma that leads to violence and abuse,” Jeborah said.

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In Uganda, abortion is illegal but the law provides that if it is performed by a licensed medical doctor and in a situation where the woman’s life is deemed to be at risk, then it is acceptable.

Jeborah used local herbs to terminate her pregnancies, which led to complications. She nearly died but was referred to Reproductive Health Uganda, a volunteer-led organization that works on sexual reproductive health and rights, which helped her survive.

Despite the discrimination, stigmatization, exploitation and harassment Jeborah faces as a sex worker, she said she needs the money to survive.

“I get some money to pay rent. I have a seven-year-old kid, and I pay for his school fees because I was abandoned by my parents and husband. Now I am earning and living as a single mother,” Jeborah said. “Sometimes you can go to the street and you don’t get any clients, so the next day you have to move on with life.”

Not all sex workers in Uganda are female. Mugisha (not real name) was 17 when his parents disowned him for being gay and he was forced to leave his family home in Masaka.

“The fear of unsafety and desperation to survive drove me to Gulu City with hopes of fending for myself. Without any friends, enough money to secure a meal or a roof over my head, life on the streets was terrible,” he said.

Mugisha worked odd jobs carrying heavy loads for bus passengers until an acquaintance encouraged him to adopt sex work to supplement his meagre daily income.

Even though sex work is illegal under Uganda’s 1950 Penal Code Act, Mugisha says it feels more like a profession like any other job.

“The criminalization of sex work and entrenched social stigma makes us avoid accessing health services and conceal our occupation from healthcare providers. Stigma towards us (male sex workers) who have sex with men is exacerbated by homophobia. This social discrimination is a major barrier in our willingness or desire to test for HIV,” Mugisha said.

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