Since 2008, Uganda’s sex workers have been organising to fight for healthcare, safer workplaces, social recognition and protection against systemic police abuse.
This is a group interview with: Macklean Kyomya, 27, a sex worker for more than a decade, who now runs a support network for men and women struggling against discrimination and criminalisation; Namakula Nakato Daisy, the country coordinator for the African Sex Worker Alliance; and Benjamin, a male sex worker in Kampala.
Taimour Lay: The sex worker industry in Kampala is very visible, of course, but very secretive too, with many brothels controlled by political and military figures. How do you go about organising workers in the city and what challenges do you face?
Macklean: We have 360 workers in Kampala involved now, 100 in Gulu, dozens in Mbale and elsewhere. We are young, it’s only been two years, there are maybe 12,000 sex workers in Kampala and Wakiso ; but word spreads, because ultimately we are helping and supporting each other. If you aren’t a sex worker then they won’t listen to you or trust. Everyone has been through a lot – rape and beatings – so obviously they think you are after something. And it’s tough because people move around a lot – one night they’ll be in Kololo, another in Kabalagala.
We do outreach on the streets and people we connect to then spread the network in their areas. Each member is entitled to refer someone to us and we give out small cards. Then we have small meetings, distribute condoms, share information.
We try to spread the message of ”my sister’s keeper” – solidarity between us all. We can’t fight or accuse each other of stealing clients. There are tensions, of course, but the law criminalises all of us so we are on the same side. When you see a sister go off with a man you know is a murderer or beats us, why do you wait till she comes back to tell her of the risk she took? We can work together.
For the workers in the brothels it’s harder to get access. And in the slums, many brothels are run by LC2’s [Local Council Chairman] and they have influence.
Taimour: I’m told it’s more dangerous on the streets but women choose the relative freedom rather than being trapped in brothels.
Macklean: Yes, brothels are in some ways safer. If a man tries to torture or rape in a brothel, the worker screams out and everyone comes, but once a woman is picked up on the streets and goes back to a house or hotel it’s more difficult. But women get moved around between brothels. For example, there’s a man with brothels in different cities and moves women around. We are trying to do something about him.
Benjamin: A newer thing now – and even the bazungu [white men] are doing it – is just to take people into the bush and that’s where a lot of abuse happens.
Taimour: Apart from outreach and information sharing, what practical things are being done? Your highest profile campaign last year was against police rape of sex workers in cells after they’ve been arrested for ”prostitution”. Middle-class Kampalans claimed to be shocked by the claims.
Macklean: Ugandans always pretend to be shocked! But they must see what’s all around. Yes, the police are a big issue. Our outreach worker was beaten by them recently and we are trying to take the case to court. The police generally are as poor as the workers and survive on sex workers’ earnings. So they arrest and then take what they can. And, yes, rape and take advantage of the situation. We try to rescue girls who are arrested by the police. There was another case where the rape happened outside the station but we took the case to the station.The CO [Commanding Officer] at Kabalagala police station says he’ll do something but he’s protecting his men. But we want to work with the police to reduce the abuse and get access.
Benjamin: The police make it really hard. They undress you, take your things and threaten you.
Taimour: Are clients ever charged by the police?
Macklean: Never! A man has never been prosecuted. If they catch us both, they take the woman away and leave you.
Taimour: What are the difficulties for male sex workers in the city? Homosexuality is also criminalised and homophobic abuse is common in public discussions of sexuality.
Benjamin: I work in clubs and other [female] sex workers get envious or so you’re taking clients so they report you to the bouncers and you get thrown out. Other times there are people who don’t like us so they pour beer on you or burn you with cigarettes. Since about 2003 it’s become harder to operate freely in Bubbles [Irish-themed pub for expatriates], Iguana and Al’s Bar.
Taimour: How do you stay safe?
Benjamin: I don’t like going to houses. I prefer hotels.
Macklean: It’s getting harder. The 2011 elections are coming. The debate is very aggressive. But the politicians are all hypocrites. Even the Pastors! They use us and then the next morning they put on their white robes and preach in church about us.
Daisy: And men sometime say they have taken a man back but thought it was a woman and then beat the worker up.
Taimour: What are the informal networks through which workers look out for each other and cooperate?
Benjamin: Oh, we talk about lots of things. I give advice to other sex workers, younger ones, about what to wear and how to behave. I mean, if you go into Bubbles, you have to behave and be disciplined or the staff will spot you. I also help arrange things for people. I’ll say it’s $100 or $50 with a white man and bring people together.
Macklean: Benjamin also pimps for women in those places.
Taimour: What’s the situation with healthcare?
Daisy: We are fighting for that. The obvious problems are STIs and HIV, but also skin problems, lower abdominal pains and things like that. But if you go to the same hospital two or three times in a month, they start to get suspicious.
Macklean: People are desperate for condoms. And many sex workers are also drug users. People lose hope.
Taimour: How widespread is condom use? Clients pay more for unprotected sex, don’t they?
Daisy: Yes. Many men want ‘live sex’ and are silly about condoms.
Taimour: You all use the word ”sex worker” instead of ”prostitute”. Why is the difference important?
Macklean: A sex worker is a positive choice. Workers make choices: where to work, how long to work, what styles of sex we will agree to.
When someone is trafficked underage, that is a prostitute.
Also, the story of prostitutes is always one looking for sympathy – ‘I came from the village’ – and it’s a word to do with sin. It’s why religious groups try to ‘rehabilitate’ us. They give workers 100,000 UgSh [£30] and say ‘start a new life’.
Benjamin: But people use it to buy nice clothes! So they indirectly help the industry! For me, ‘prostitute’ is an abuse really. What the law says.
Macklean: It’s an old profession, formed before we born. If you’re poor, it’s a choice.
Daisy: Talk to most sex workers here and they’ll be women trying to pay for the childrens’ education.
Taimour: What are the other options? 80 hours a week in the supermarkets? Rural labour? There are over 100,000 women employed as ‘domestics’ in middle class households in Kampala – they earn 30,000 UgSh [£10] a month and aren’t even allowed to leave the house.
Daisy: Exactly. There are more and more sex workers. It’s much more open now. They keep trying to stop us but the numbers go up. People ask us why we do what we do. They should ask themselves what pushes us in that direction.
For Macklean’s story, and more details of the sex worker industry in Kampala, see here.