We step across a sewage channel to enter an unmarked, tin-roof building, leaving the bright sunlight for the dark corridors of a 23-room inn in a busy commercial district in Kampala, Uganda. More than a dozen women huddle on the mud floor in a small rectangular courtyard whose walls are charcoal-black. We gradually come to realize that we’ve arrived at a brothel, the destination for our field tour with the Women’s Organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy, a prominent group that fights for the rights of Uganda’s sex workers.
One woman in her 30s, dressed in a black head scarf, does much of the talking for the women at the brothel, speaking in her native Luganda while the manager of the inn translates. The woman says she lost her husband and had no source of income to support herself and her children. “I almost committed suicide,” she says, but a friend encouraged her to try sex work to earn money. “My friend said, ‘I will show you what to do.’” Behind her, three wooden doors lead to squalid, closet-sized rooms where the women live and work their trade.
The women, we learn, have turned to sex work as a matter of survival. Many have lost husbands or partners on whom they depended for income, and they lack the education or skills to find other jobs that pay a livable wage.
“If they turn away from sex work, how will they feed their children or pay their school fees?” one WONETHA official says.
But the work comes with a price. The women frequently face client abuse, beatings and harassment on the streets, even police brutality – including rape, beatings and extortion – and the ever-present risk of HIV.
“Sex workers are facing a health and human rights crisis in Uganda. Despite this, little is being done to protect the most basic human rights of sex workers,” declares a pink banner at WONETHA’s headquarters in central Kampala.
The largest organization of its kind in East Africa, the group works to provide the women with better access to medical care, legal and social services, job training and freedom from violence and arbitrary arrests.
I met with members of the nonprofit group in February as a Global Justice Fellow with American Jewish World Service, an international development organization that aims to end poverty and promote human rights in the developing world. I was among 15 fellows from the Bay Area who spent nine days in Uganda learning about the work of human rights organizations that advocate for women, girls and the LGBT community.
One of WONETHA’s goals is helping prevent HIV among the sex workers and obtain access to medical care for those who are infected with the virus. Sex workers are the greatest at-risk group in the country, with an infection rate of 37 percent in 2010, according to the Uganda AIDS Commission. At the national level, Uganda was particularly hard-hit by AIDS early on, with the disease reaching epidemic proportions in the 1980s. Between 1992 and 2000, however, there was a dramatic decline in incidence – from an estimated high of about 18.5 percent to 5 percent. In recent years, the number of infections has begun to rise again in what many see as a disturbing trend; the infection rate reached 7.2 percent in 2012, according to the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS. Lax attitudes regarding safe sex and a lack of condom use are among the factors cited in the trend.
WONETHA distributes condoms to help protect sex workers against HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. A dozen large boxes of Chinese-made condoms, supplied by the United Nations Population Fund, occupied a cool space in the group’s headquarters on the day of our visit – some 100,000 of them ready to be distributed to various locations around town.
But condom use, we are told, is not always guaranteed. Clients may resist using them or pay more for a condom-free encounter. A program manager with the group told me that even in marriages, many men resist use of condoms but continue to have multiple partners – putting their wives and the other partners at risk.
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