It is 4pm and Stella Aboth , 26, has just woken up. Half naked, she manages to sit up in the bed, coughing while reaching for anti-retroviral drugs in her purse. Her weak voice is almost not heard when she speaks about life as a prostitute in Malaba. Last night, Aboth took four different men to her bed, making Shs25,000. All were foreign truck drivers.
Thousands of drivers pass through Malaba every day, since it is the main border point on the highway to and from Kenya. The drivers often have to spend between a few hours and several days in Malaba, while waiting for new goods to be loaded on the truck or for the customs to clear the vehicle. This waiting time is often spent in the company of commercial sex workers like Aboth. Even though she feels sick, Aboth will have to go to the bars looking for lonely drivers again tonight.
“I have to earn money enough to pay for rent, medicine and school fees for my two children,” Aboth says.
Her two sons, who are seven and five, stay with their aunt in Kampala. Her relatives think Aboth works in a supermarket, which was her intention of coming to Malaba. She had heard that the busy border provided plenty of job opportunities, but she was unable to find any work.
How she got into the business
When she arrived in Malaba, she rented a small room in the centre of town. From the empty condom packages filling the ground of the compound and the noises coming from the rooms next-door, she soon realised that most of her neighbours worked as commercial sex workers.
“I could see that the other women in the compound earned good money on prostitution. So one day when a man stopped me on the street and offered me money for sex, I could not resist. Since then it has been my only income,” Aboth says.
Like most sex workers in Malaba and Busia, Aboth charges around Shs30,000 for a man to stay in her room overnight, while a “quick round” can cost as little as Shs4,000. Now that she is sick, she is less popular with the men and has to lower the prices to attract customers. When feeling better, Aboth can sleep with 10 men on a busy night earning up to Shs60,000.
“On average, in a month, I make Shs500,000. That means I can easily pay my rent, send a good amount of money to my children and buy new jewellery and dresses for myself. In a supermarket I would earn Shs100,000, how then would I manage to pay for everything?” Aboth asks. The high income the women get from selling their bodies makes it difficult for them to find alternatives. Even when they are able to get an ordinary daytime job, many of the women continue working as prostitutes in the night to boost their income. Some women even offer unprotected sex if the customer is willing to pay more.
A recent report from The Aids Support Organisation (Taso ) shows that the HIV/Aids prevalence in Malaba Town Council is at 12 per cent, which is more than double the prevalence in the East Central region (5.8 per cent) [Yes, East Central region: it's not a typo), where Malaba is placed. The town council also has a very high number of early pregnancies due to prostitution. Many girls drop out of school, because they end up getting pregnant, while prostituting themselves trying to earn money for school fees. Also many out-of-school girls, especially orphans, turn to commercial sex work to earn money for their basic needs. Some of the girls impregnated due to prostitution have been as young as 11 years. Aboth says commercial sex workers also face the risk of being abused or raped by the truck drivers. Many of her friends have been severely damaged by aggressive men, and Aboth has also had bad encounters with customers herself.
“Recently, a man refused to use a condom, which I do not allow. He forced me to have unprotected sex with him and left without paying me,” Aboth says.
When Aboth goes looking for potential customers, she normally heads to the popular bars that attract both truck drivers and plenty of fellow prostitutes. When customers are hard to find, she even wanders around the dark truck park in the hope of finding a lonely truck driver before her business competitors.
She is aware that prostitution is risky for both her health and security, so she wishes to quit soon. In the hope of starting up her own retail shop in Malaba she has been saving up a good amount of money, but lately she had to spend most of the savings on her HIV/Aids treatment.
“Now I have to be with a lot of men, so I can again save up money,“ she says before she gets dressed and moves back into the night.
The women working in the sexual industry in the border towns are having a dangerous and illegal job. For that reason supporting these women has become a high priority for humanitarian organisations working in these border towns.
Efforts to help them
“We want to arrange community meetings, provide education for the sex workers and show them alternative ways on generating an income,” Robert Nandhubu, the manager Red Cross, Malaba branch, says. He believes that the problems with commercial sex workers at border towns have the potential of affecting many families if a solution is not found. Because of the large amount of sex workers in Malaba the area has a high prevalence of HIV/Aids.
Nandhubu and his team tries to fight HIV/Aids by providing free condoms not just for the sex workers, but also for the truck drivers and boda boda riders, who are the most frequent customers. He hopes that they will be able to intensify the fight against HIV/Aids by offering free testing and counselling in the future.
Even with these efforts there is still the problem that most of these commercial sex workers have adapted to this way of life and have no way out.
*Stella Aboth is a fictional name given to protect the identity of the woman.