Uganda’s community of prostitutes has long been considered a weak link in the fight against Aids. Popular opinion holds that most of them are infected with HIV—that they remain powerless to play the kind of positive role that contributes to the bigger picture. But that may be about to change.
Now, with the efforts of progressive lawyers, doctors and some charismatic sex workers, suddenly prostitutes are being told that they are powerful—that they can fight the pandemic like never before. Inside the gated compound of an ordinary house off Salaama Road, in Makindye, some 55 sex workers yesterday met under a white tarpaulin to hear this hopeful message.
They were not being told to quit the oldest profession; they were being asked to embrace it with responsibility, guile and resourcefulness. If they could do it, for example by insisting on their clients wearing condoms, they could accomplish a lot more than many unfaithful couples. The message seemed to resonate well among the sex workers, including two men among them.
The speaker, Dr Ben Twinomugisha, a Makerere University law professor, said he rejected the assumption that all sex workers were infected with HIV. His speech sounded like a sermon in courage, telling the women to reject the sympathy of those who look down upon them.
“You are very strong,” Dr Twinomugisha said, drawing approval. “You can handle five men in a single night. You actually dispel the notion that women are the weaker sex.”
Dr Twinomugisha was sitting behind a table draped in floral ensembles, balloons hovering around him, a placard behind him announcing the day’s theme: “Criminalisation of sex work fuels the Aids epidemic.” It was a happy day, and lunch was to be served. “Feel free with the press,” Dr Twinomugisha said. “And tell your client to put on a condom.” There was at least one pregnant woman among the sex workers.
Uganda’s penal law criminalises prostitution, but reports frequently suggest the practice is widespread all over Uganda, perhaps more so in Kampala and in transit areas. The Penal Code prescribes a seven-year jail term for suspects convicted of prostitution. Dr James Nsaba Buturo, the junior minister in charge of ethics and integrity, is their biggest critic on record.
Increasingly, however, a small community of sex workers is being emboldened to challenge the law, to speak openly about what they think are their rights. They are particularly hostile to what they perceive to be the hypocrisy of authorities in the fight against Aids, and sometimes they point out that the men who despise them in public are their nightly clients.
They posed some questions yesterday: If there is more Aids among married women, as some figures show, why aren’t married couples being involuntarily tested? Who said prostitutes are not responsible people? What proves that prostitutes are immoral?
Macklean Kyomya, 27, who coordinates the Women’s Organisation Network for Human Rights Advocacy, the organisers of the Makindye event, has been a prostitute since she was 16. What has changed now is that the recent graduate of Nsamizi Training Institute operates via phone and is more selective of her clients, a standard most of her colleagues are yet to reach.
Ms Kyomya, whose rate today is at least $100 (Shs200,000) per client, said she was drawn to prostitution at an early age because of financial need, but that her reasons had evolved to include “ambition” as she grew older. “I have clients who are MPs or ministers,” she said. “My dream is to see sex workers come out and accept themselves.” The sex workers, all of them sporting white T-shits bearing the day’s theme, were ferried from places as far as Mbale and Gulu, but the process had not been scientific, Ms Kyomya said.
“We are training them to be trainers, so we wanted people who can speak some English,” she said. Of the 55 people in attendance, she said, only eight were infected with HIV while at least 10 had not been tested. It was impossible to verify this claim.
Uganda’s prostitutes have always operated on the fringes, avoiding the kind of publicity that would put them on a collision path with the law. Even if most of them are still reluctant to face reporters, yesterday’s event may signal a change in strategy.
An official from the Uganda Aids Commission, Dr David Tigawalana, had been invited to equip them with Aids-related facts and figures, the kind of information they need to make informed choices.
Somewhere in Dr Tigawalana’s presentation, deep among the slides, there was a note about “the populations” with the greatest risk of catching HIV. Commercial sex workers were at the top of the list.