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Gulu sex workers defend business as HIV/AIDS spreads in Acholi

(Last Updated On: 27 April 2024)

Gulu | Sex workers in Acholi sub-region have defended their unique business, calling it a source of income.

Sex for cash remains an issue in Gulu City as the poverty rate rises.

Although there is no final data on the exact number of sex workers in Acholi, a recent survey conducted during health medical camp in Gulu City revealed that over 300 women and girls work in the sex industry.

Gladys Aber, a youth counsellor at TASO Gulu branch, reported that many young girls do not attend sex education classes at school or at home. “In fact, their minds are not tuned to the dangers of sex and the negative impact on their health status.

“Schools and parents never provide young girls and boys with accurate information about the risks of early sex or sex work. However, no specific class is designated for this topic. Some people regard it as taboo,” Aber observed.

Many sex workers use narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, chewing mairungi, smoking cannabis cigarettes, and alcoholism to alleviate men’s fear of having sex, but they fail to make their own decisions, Aber explained.

The counsellor blamed the lack of youth-friendly services [centres], pointing out that the majority of health facilities in Acholi do not have dedicated rooms for youth services.

This, she said, makes it difficult for young people and sex workers to come in for regular checkups, guidance, and counselling.

“Many people are afraid of being exposed and stigmatised in public.”

Juliet Aunu Okeny, data clerk at Alero Health Centre III in Nowya district, stated that sex workers, clients of sex workers, and partners of sex workers are “risk groups” for HIV transmission in the sub-region.

According to Aunu, majority of young people who run sex businesses have limited knowledge and a negative perception of HIV services and treatments.

Juliet Aunu (L) during a recent health engagement. Photo by Okot Lil Romeo.

According to statistics, the HIV/AIDS prevalence in Acholi is 7.4 percent, which is higher than the national average of 5.3 percent.

Pader district leads Acholi with 12.3 percent, while Nowya has the lowest percentage (3.4 percent).

According to the Ministry of Health, new cases decreased by 72 percent between 2017 and 2021, from 11,358 to 3,175 in Acholi.

On March 20, 2024, a health camp was held in Gulu City. Approximately 150 women attended for counselling, cancer screening, and testing for and treatment of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Half of those who showed up were found positive.

Gulu University, Reproductive Health Uganda (RHU), and Gulu Regional Referral Hospital organised the medical camp, which took place near the Kaunda grounds.

 Lieutenant Gen. Charles Otema Awany, Commander of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) Reserve Force, sponsored it.

Daneila, who prefers not to be identified by her other name, is the sex workers coordinator in Gulu City. She stated that they are in the sex business not for fun, but to provide for their fatherless children.

However, we are at risk of contracting HIV from our customers, she told tndNews.

“All women who work in the sex industry are vulnerable; they cannot choose whether to have sex with or without a condom because some men force us to have live sex.” We are at risk of contracting many diseases, including HIV/AIDS, candidiasis, gonorrhoea, syphilis, UTIs, and other infections.”

The team leader of Gulu City sex workers, who preferred to be identified only as “Aber,” also stated that “we are at risk, but our biggest customers are politicians and businessmen.”

“Many of them are very stubborn; they sometimes treat us as slaves, have sex without paying, and are very suspicious of us when we are in the room.”

She estimates that about 5 women (members) in Acholi die each year from AIDS as a result of limited medical checks and treatment.

“The money we earn from men cannot support treatments, school fees for our children, or feeding,” the team leader stated.

“Over 300 women and girls from various districts outside Acholi come to the city to trade sex,” she said.

Geoffrey Akena is the team leader for Otema Community Outreach. Akena, who also serves as a councillor for the Bardege-Layibi Division, stated that they were particularly interested in assisting sex workers in finding more decent ways to make a living.

Even though prostitution is illegal in Uganda, many women make a living from it. 

“We intend to profile them, identify their true needs, and design support packages for them in order to combat the high prevalence of HIV in this region.

“They are not on the streets because they wish to be there. There are factors that drove them there. We need to understand those factors.

“When we met with them, they asked for three things: personal health support, which we are currently providing, financial support, and the formation of an association or other forms of cooperative arrangements,” Akena said.

Akena said their target is to reduce the number of sex workers by supporting them to engage in other income-generating activities.

Emily Uramba Kayeny, a nurse at Gulu Regional Referral Hospital and member of the CONSCOV team, reported testing and treating over 150 clients of sex workers during the health camp.

“Sixty-six tested for syphilis and we found six positive cases. Eighty-eight tested for HIV and we found four positive cases. We screened 56 people for cancer and discovered two cases, Hepatitis B and Typhoid, which require confirmatory testing. 

According to Dr. Agatha Alidri, the CONSCOV Principal Investigator, “access to health services is a right for everyone.” However, vulnerable groups in Uganda face significant barriers to accessing these services.

“Some of the women are young single mothers with no obvious sources of income. Collaborations like this one, between the CONSCOV consortium and the UPDF Reserve Force, allow us to mobilise resources to serve them,” Dr. Alidri stated.

According to Victor Rwengaba, zonal coordinator of the Uganda AIDS Commission, adolescents aged 15-24 reported having their first sex before the age of 15. Young men were more likely than young women to report an early sexual encounter.

Overall, the proportion of young people initiating sex before the age of 15 has not changed significantly over the last 15 years; however, it appears that young women are delaying their first sexual debut, with the proportion initiating sex before the age of 15 dropping from 14.4% in 2004/05 to 10% in 2016/17, which is a risk factor for HIV infection.

According to the Uganda AIDS Commission Report for 2022, Uganda has a total of 1,433,000 people living with HIV. There are 858,000 women, 495,000 men, and 80,000 children.

One thought on “Gulu sex workers defend business as HIV/AIDS spreads in Acholi

  1. I am midwife working in Kwania DLG .i think the first intervention here is to provide prep for them routinely then other interventions can follow.

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