It’s Getting Harder and Harder to Defend Sex Workers’ Rights in Uganda

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Commentary Human Rights

It’s Getting Harder and Harder to Defend Sex Workers’ Rights in Uganda

Kyomya Macklean

Sex work may be illegal in Uganda but providing services for sex workers is not. Because of our status as sex workers, we are being left out of many social services, especially health services.

Cross-posted in partnership from the HIV Human Rights blog and part of Rewire’s coverage of the International AIDS Conference, 2012.

Two years back, our Minister of Ethics and Integrity blocked a sex workers’ regional workshop that we had organized in Kampala. Because sex work is illegal in Uganda, he insisted that all our activities are illegal. He even called our activities “criminal”. He said sex workers should stop using HIV/AIDS as an excuse for breaching the law and that we should stop citing human rights as a justification for our “crimes”.

This is just absurd. Sex work may be illegal in Uganda but providing services for sex workers is not. The conference that we had organized was not about sex techniques or related to anything that is illegal. We were trying to build the skills of sex workers – in leadership, economic empowerment, personal development and entrepreneurship. We were also trying to provide information on their health rights, HIV/AIDS and sexual and reproductive health.

Because of our status as sex workers, we are being left out of many social services, especially health services. When health workers get to know that you are a sex worker, they insult you. This takes away from our right to health, as does the violence we often face, which has severe health consequences. Last year, a survey we conducted showed that over 145 sex workers were assaulted and 82 sexually harassed in 2011.

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Organizations that try to provide desperately needed services to sex workers face arbitrary arrests of and detention of staff, office searches, and seizure of office property. Two months ago, the police dropped by our centre in Gulu and arrested two staff and three of our members.

Like us, human rights defenders working on certain other issues are under attack in Uganda. Those who speak out for human rights are often perceived as enemies of culture, religion, and the State. Cultural and religious institutions consider that sex workers and the LGBTI community engage in ‘evil, unAfrican and inhuman’ behaviour and this has significantly affected the progress of human rights work in Uganda. Given that the majority of the funding for human rights work in this region comes from abroad, the government often perceives NGOs as representing and promoting a foreign agenda, and even sees them as a threat to the country’s sovereignty. NGOs are in fact perceived as posing a greater threat than the political opposition and are often silenced.

The government has put in place or proposed a range of legal provisions aimed at restricting the work of human right defenders, including the Communication Interception Bill of 2007 and the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009. The latter, if passed, would impose a maximum penalty of death for people deemed to be ‘promoting homosexuality’, including staff of organizations working to promote the rights of LGBTI persons. Other laws are being used to prevent human rights defenders from assembling.

The United Nations recently recognized that HIV prevention is being impeded by a ‘tide of punitive laws’. In Uganda, this tide of punitive laws means that our right to health, our right to freedom of assembly, and our right to organize to protect ourselves are all being severely restricted. Of particular concern to us are sections in the penal code that criminalize living on the earnings of prostitution.

Sex workers in Uganda are strongly opposed to the criminalization of commercial sex. People do sex work for a lot of reasons and one of them is economic. People have responsibilities to look after their children, pay rent and school fees. Sex workers are everywhere because of the hard conditions that the government hasn’t addressed. There are women who have invested, built houses and paid school fees for their children, some of whom have even graduated. In the villages, some women have started rearing livestock.

I have built my own house from my earnings in sex work. It’s a very humble home and I live with my family, including my mother and adopted children. But at the end of the day, my work and my rights are not recognized. Sometimes we live in denial, pretending that sex workers do not exist. This is wrong.

Uganda should repeal laws prohibiting activities associated with sex work. We want to improve our living and working conditions and we want the government and people to recognize that we have the same human rights as everybody else. In an environment where even the basic rights of human rights defenders are restricted, this is not an easy fight – but we are determined to carry on!

Kyomya Maclean is a human rights defender and the coordinator of WONETHA, an NGO that fights for human rights in Uganda, with special attention to sex workers’ rights.