Source: AWID
Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) who promote the rights; health and safety of sexual workers are being persecuted, harassed and arrested.  Although sexual work is illegal in Uganda, providing services and support for sex workers is not.

By Katherine Ronderos

On 13 July 2012 at 10.00am Mary and her boyfriend had the door to their room kicked down by Officer in Charge (O.C.) of Nakulabye Police Station, Mr. Kirumira Mohammed, who ordered Mary to take off her clothes and then called in men with cameras and told them to take pictures of her naked. Three days later Mary’s naked pictures appeared in a local tabloid ‘Kamunye’ with a caption saying she was having sex in a lodge. Mary had to pay 100,000 Ugandan Shillings to the Police to be released.

On Saturday 14 July 2012 at 9.00am Clare, who was visibly pregnant, was beaten, kicked and left to sit in a filthy trench full of sewage for two hours after being accused of prostitution by O.C. Mohammed.

Anne was beaten with a metal baton by O.C. Mohammed while bar tending for her auntie on 15 July 2012 at 7.00pm. After falling down while trying to escape, she was taken to the police station and ordered to sit on the floor while O.C. Mohammed poked at her vagina with a baton saying “why don’t you prostitutes wear any underwear”, before hitting her on the head demanding, “whoever doesn’t have 200,000 Shillings by tomorrow morning will be taken to Nsangi to dig”.

Mary, Clare and Anne* are just three of the many cases of women sex workers that the Women’s Organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA) defend against discrimination, harassment and abuse. Legally formed in 2008[1], WONETHA has been working to improve the health, social and economic wellbeing of adult sex workers in Uganda. WONETHA values and respects the rights of sex workers who want to exit, and prepares them to start new livelihood by building skills in leadership, economic empowerment, personal development and entrepreneurship. Importantly, WONETHA provides information on HIV and AIDS, and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Criminalization for defending the rights of sex workers

Despite sex work being illegal in many countries, a 1998 UN International Labour Organisation Report[2]calls for economic recognition of the sex industry, which should include extending labour rights and benefits to sex workers and improve working conditions.  Sex work is illegal in Uganda and authorities insist that all activities related to sex workers are illegal too, calling these activities “criminal”. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide services to sex workers face arbitrary arrests and detention of staff, office searches, and seizure of office property.

In 2010, the Ugandan Minister of Ethics and Integrity blocked a sex workers’ regional workshop that WONETHA organized in Kampala, asserting that sex workers were using the work in combating HIV and AIDS as an excuse for breaching the law and that WONETHA should stop citing human rights as a justification for these “crimes”. “This is just absurd. Sex work may be illegal in Uganda but providing services for sex workers is not”, said Kyomya Macklean, coordinator of WONETHA. The purpose of the conference was to build leadership, economic empowerment, personal development and entrepreneurship skills for sex workers.

On 7 May 2012, officers of the Uganda Police Force physically assaulted and arrested two staff members of WONETHA after they refused to take the officials to WONETHA’s Drop in Center in Gulu city. Without either a warrant of arrest or a search warrant, the police searched the office for more than an hour, examining files, books, leaflets, brochures and other documents with information about WONETHA’s members as well as accessing their computers. The police officers confiscated a computer, cashbooks, leaflets, project proposals and condoms.

The two WONETHA staff members were held at the police station without being informed of the charges against them. Three friends who went to the police station to find out what had happened were also arrested and referred to as sex workers. It was not until 9 May when the five women gave formal statements in the presence of their lawyers that they received information about the charges. Their lawyers were informed that the case file had been taken to the State Attorney and immediately sanctioned.

The five women have been charged with “living on the earnings of prostitution”[3] and could face seven years in prison. Bail of 500,000 Shillings for the arrested and 1,000,000 Shillings for the sureties was granted to three of them. The other two women remain in detention until they can afford the bail. They are all currently facing trial and are locked in extended legal procedures with pre-trial court hearings scheduled and cancelled on short notice on three occasions. The latest hearing, scheduled for 31 July, was cancelled and the time of writing this it is uncertain when it will be re-scheduled.

Legal status of sex work in Uganda

In Uganda, sex work, commonly referred to as prostitution, is illegal and is penalised in criminal law. The legal framework is based on the belief that law enforcement and repression can and should reduce prostitution. Under Section 138 of the Penal Code the definition of prostitute and prostitution limits culpability of the offence to the sellers of sex (the majority of whom are poor women) and not to the clients (mostly men). Furthermore, third parties like pimps, brothel owners, advertisers and human traffickers face sentences of up to seven years imprisonment for “living wholly or in part on the earnings of prostitution,”[4]but this means that the dependents of a sex worker, such as her children or elderly parents, face the risk of being included into this group too.[5]

Due to the socio-cultural and economic context in Uganda, some of the reasons for women’s entry into sex work include poverty, domestic violence, orphaning, armed conflict, sexual violence and pre-marital pregnancies, among others.[6]The social disadvantage, discrimination and the criminalisation of prostitution leaves sex workers particularly vulnerable to stigmatization, sexual and physical abuse from law enforcement officials. In implementing the current law against sex work, the Ugandan police use both legal and extra-legal powers to abuse and harass sex workers. According to WONETHA, sex workers experience routine violence from police, including rape, physical assault and having their genitals sprayed with pepper spray. The law has become an instrument of harassment and abuse by the police. Most arrests are not pursued in courts[7]and sex workers either have to buy their way out of jail or succumb to rape by the people who are supposed to enforce the law against them.

Defending women human rights defenders

WHRDs working to protect, support and defend the rights of sex workers are under attack in Uganda. WONETHA has been wrongly accused of promoting and profiting from prostitution and using their premises as a brothel. According to Kyomya Macklean “those who speak out for human rights are often perceived as enemies of culture, religion, and the State. Cultural and religious institutions believe that sex workers engage in ‘evil, un-African and inhuman’ behaviour and this has significantly affected the progress of human rights work in Uganda.”

WHRDs also experience stigmatization because of the source of their funding for their work. As Uganda does not provide financial resources for this type of work, most of the financial support comes from abroad, increasing the perception that promoting external agendas threatens national sovereignty. NGOs are being silenced and are seen as greater threat than the opposition political party. The government has pushed forward legal provisions aimed at restricting the work of women human right defenders, including the Communication Interception Bill of 2007 and the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill that has been repeatedly raised in parliament, most recently in 2011.

International Outcry

The Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition believes that the raid on WONETHA’s offices and arbitrary detention to its staff constitutes a violation of international and regional human rights legislation to which Uganda is a signatory[8]. In its latest public statement, the WHRD International Coalition expressed that the act of arresting and charging the five women “is an attempt to criminalize the legal activities of a women human rights organization, behaviour that is solely based on discrimination against sex workers.”

The WHRD International Coalition calls on Ugandan government to:

  1. “Immediately drop the charges against them.
  2. Carry out an immediate and impartial investigation into the raid on the WONETHA Drop in Centre and the arrest of its staff, and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.
  3. Ensure that effective measures are implemented to allow WONETHA’s Drop-in Center in Gulu to continue with its work as a women’s human rights organization.
  4. Ensure all necessary measures are implemented to ensure the physical and psychological integrity of WONETHA’s members, including preventing attacks against them based on gender stereotypes and discrimination.
  5. Ensure that all the necessary measures are implemented to stop the criminalization of WHRDs of sex workers based on discriminatory reasons, in accordance with CEDAW and ACHPR, including through legislative reforms.”
Defending the Defender – Women Human Rights Defenders in Uganda Face Unlawful Criminalization

Outreach event with WONETHA members

Photo credit: WONETHA

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