The first time Kyomya Macklean did sex work, her client turned violent after she refused to have sex without a condom. As she fought back, she remembers him saying: “I can kill you bitch! After all, you are just a slut who sells your body to earn a living.” As he assaulted her physically he continued to berate her, saying: “Even if I killed you, nobody would judge me of murder because you are nothing but a prostitute and a kisarani [theLugandan word for curse].”
As the oldest of 19 children in a family in which her father had seven wives, this young Ugandan woman opted to do sex work to pay for her education. After her violent introduction, she continued to do the work – and she organised a group with other sex workers. In 2008, she co-founded Wonetha with two other adult sex workers who had also experienced harassment, insults, stigma, discrimination and arrest without trial. They would like to see sex work decriminalised, and the human rights of people who engage in the sex trade upheld. To this end, Macklean’s story and the stories of four sex workers from Uganda and Kenya are captured in the booklet When I Dare to Be Powerful, published by Akina Mama Wa Afrika, an African feminist organisation whose name means “solidarity among African women”.
There are a lot of obstacles to their goals. Although sex workers in Uganda and many other places are vulnerable to the kind of one-on-one violence that Macklean experienced, human rights abuses from the state are widespread and actively prevent sex workers from improving their working conditions. Although the purported mission of governments who criminalise sex work is to abolish the industry, sometimes with overtones of rescue, in reality the laws punish sex workers and make their lives harder.
Health clinics that offer HIV testing and treatment services in Ugandaregularly deny sex workers access to care and withhold anti-retroviral medications on the grounds that there are other people, whose jobs are legal and who aren’t engaged in immoral activities, who are more deserving of treatment. Some healthcare workers regard time and HIV/Aids resources spent on sex workers as a waste. Sex workers are included as one of the UN’s four populations who are most at risk from HIV, but restricted access to services does nothing to improve the health and wellbeing of those engaged in the sex trade. It likewise does not protect the people sex workers come in contact with. Restrictions imposed because of criminalisation leave sex workers out in the cold and solve no one’s problems.
Although grassroots organisations are making progress, the work has been stymied by government officials. Last month, a Sex Workers Leadership Institute was set to take place in Kampala, Uganda. It was shut down by the country’s minister of ethics and integrity, Nsaba Buturo. In a letter to the hotel hosting the conference, Buturo states that “prostitution is a criminal offence in Uganda” and as a result “the hotel is an accomplice in an illegality”. But as Amnesty International points out in a public statement opposing the shutdown of the conference, the Ugandan Constitution affirms the right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. The enforcement of this discrimination against sex workers makes it impossible for them to improve their situations.
Just days later, the district police commander in the town of Kasese in western Uganda incited a contingent of police officers to raid bars and streets where sex workers congregate. On this night, the police delivered beatings to everyone they thought was a sex worker. About 20 women spent the night in jail and the women who were not detained were forced to pay fines. Following the assaults, some got treatment in hospitals. There were, however, no charges made against the women. The roundup was a way for the police to assert their dominance and stigmatise people they suspected were sex workers.
Denial of access to HIV services, restrictions on organising, and police crackdowns do not make it possible to eliminate the sex trade; instead they perpetuate stigma and discrimination. The global sex worker rights movement emphasises that it is possible to make the sex trade more hospitable to workers, but that institutional violence is one of the major barriers.
Since American sex icon Annie Sprinkle established the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers in 2003, sex workers from around the world have organised vigils, community gatherings and speakouts on 17 December to mourn victims of violence in our communities. The event was originally created in the wake of the Green River serial killer. But violence doesn’t just come in the form of bad clients – more often, it is delivered by the institutions that are supposed to protect and improve the lives of citizens.