Lockdown: Inside the dark world of sex workers in Kampala

Sex workers wait for clients on a street in Kabalagala, Kampala, at a weekend. PHOTOS/GABRIEL BUULE.

What you need to know:

  • The outbreak of Covid-19 fuelled a change in the face of Kampala’s nightlife. More than a year since the first lockdown, pub doors have remained slammed shut and nighttime curfew reigns, but the Covid-19 directives have not stopped sex workers from plying their trade on Kampala’s streets, writes Gabriel Buule.

At about 8pm, I meet Genevieve Mahoro near Equity Bank in Kabalagala, a suburb of Kampala City. She asks if I am stuck, and then offers to accommodate me at a fee in her home, which is supposedly at the back of a popular bar nearby.

Her home turns out to be a guest house and she tells me she is there for business. 

“Oli muntu mukulu lowooza (you are old enough to figure it out),” she says to my inquiry.

I indulge Mahoro in a long conversation at an automated teller machine (ATM). She opens up and reveals she is a sex worker. 

Together with friends, she pays for a room at a guest house to ‘transact business.’

We arrive to a warm reception inside a room where some of her associates are drinking, others negotiating and picking up details with clients on the phone. Others seem intoxicated.

Mahoro tells me the room hosts many girls because they can’t risk hanging outside past curfew time. 

“We stay up here to avoid police [detection], but we usually try our luck on the streets, when we get a catch, then it’s a good day but on a bad day, we end up in police cells,” she reveals.

Meanwhile, a police patrol siren goes off and three girls with a man who appears to be of Eritrean origin come running into the room, “Baabo, baabo (they are coming),” they pant, warning that police are after them.

Mahoro stays put and says such occurrences are common and she knows how to deal with them. 

“Police! All they need is money,” she proclaims.

Mahoro, who appears to be in her early 20s, agrees to show me around at a fee. She is joined by Violah, whom she identifies as a sister.

The two, who say they are Rwandan immigrants from Nyagatare, claim they were abandoned by their agent (or pimp) just before the first Covid-19 lockdown.

“We have nowhere to go, brothel owners abandoned us and other girls, so we have to find something to eat,” Violah explains. 

Our conversation is cut short near Kampala International University, when Mahoro is lured by a man driving a private car. 

Violah joins her, saying they are being dropped at a client’s hotel room in Buziga.

Our conversation shifts to the phone as she tells me sex work is still booming, although players in the business have devised more tricks to deal with the curfew.

Violah says most girls in the business are trafficked from Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania. 

She adds that most of them have been in the country working on behalf of their agents and were simply abandoned by their employers.

 Mahoro tells me she has no papers to stay in Uganda and she is frequently arrested by the police.  

“I came to Uganda in 2019 and I was told I was going to work in a restaurant. Later, Mugisha*, a bus driver, who brought us into the country, took us to Nakulabye and gave us to Mama, who introduced us to sex work, charging Shs35,000 daily. However, Mama chased us when the lockdown was announced,” she narrates.

 The night crawlers, new tricks

My second day of probing this trade takes me to Kampala City centre.

Inside City House on Dastur Street, a known red light zone, sex workers transact during the day.

‘Mummy,’ a sex worker, tells me her clients walk in during the day and some sleep over at night.

“We let them come in late in the evening, but we let them hang around until daytime because of the curfew,” she reveals.

Sex workers seek out for clients on Speke Road in Kampala at the weekend. 

It is a similar story in Kisenyi, where there are rooms designated for sex trade and drinking. 

Many sex workers claim they were trafficked into the country and their only way to survive the lockdown is to devise tricks to remain in the business.

 Another woman, who prefers to remain anonymous, says currently, sex workers no longer stand in one spot but move in groups of three to five or as individuals in search of clients.

She reveals that sometimes she masquerades with a cannula on her hand, as if on medication to avoid police questioning.

“You get a medical form from a clinic or fix a cannula on your hand and move about. If you are lucky, a car stops and you get a client,” she adds.

Bars, hotels, lodges and social media

The guidelines put in place by the government to curtail the spread of Covid-19 banned bars from operating. 

However, it is evident there are underground activities that happen in bars and several police arrests have been made.

Violah and her colleagues operate in bars that remain open despite the curfew and lockdown restrictions on night spots. 

For the girls, bars that operate under security protection offer some level of safety.

“Some bars are working and there is silent disco, especially on weekends, some are guarded by security personnel and others just work with few lights on and doors closed,” she adds.

As Violah reveals, sex workers have also turned to social media to reach out to their clients, who later meet them in specific lodges, hotel rooms and guest houses.

Sex work before Covid and today

Queen Mbabazi, who I found on Speke Road in Kampala, says sex trade has become more challenging unlike before the outbreak of Covid-19. Mbabazi, who currently vends second-hand clothes during day in downtown Kampala, says the venture has been badly affected by the lockdown.

She says before Covid, she could earn between Shs100,000 and Shs300,000 a day, depending on the season.

“The festive seasons were very good. Weekends would also be good for us given the fact that many people used to hang out in bars and music concerts.”

Mbabazi says with bars closed and some lodges closing business, the trade hardly makes her any money, the reason she has resorted to vending clothes during day.

In many places such as Kabalagala, Makindye and Katwe, the biggest bars known to host sex workers have closed due to the Covid-19 restrictions.

Inside, there are girls of all ages, and each tells her price to whoever enters the place.

I hook up with one Shillah, who takes me to a room and explains that she charges between Shs7,000 and Shs15,000 depending on the duration one is to utilise her services.

My interest is in the story, and  all I do is to double the pay to have a conversation with her after claiming that I am sick but I find it right to pay her.

She explains to me that she came from Busia eight years ago to work in a bar. However, the people who brought her instead took her to the brothel owner and she was inducted into sex work.

Shillah says most girls, who are still in the trade, are stuck and cannot find their way back to where they came from.

“Most of them were unknowingly lured into the trade by different agents. When Covid came, most of them were abandoned,” she adds.

Sex worker speaks out

Ms Diana Natukunda, a sex worker and the executive director of Women’s Organisation Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA), confesses that sex workers are defying curfew to engage in the trade.

She, however, notes that the situation has arisen out of the sex workers’ desperate need to find ways of surviving the global pandemic.

She reveals that sadly, the few who work are subjected to predatory policing and extortion from security organs.

“Our people are forced to pay money in exchange for their freedom when arrested, and some street sex workers pay the police to avoid being arrested,” she adds.

She says the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/Aids might spike because nowadays, sex workers have very little room for negotiation on safe sex because they are more desperate for money.

“Before the pandemic, we had trained sex workers to brief men about the use of condoms but currently, things are done in a rush because of curfew and the girls are also desperate to earn,” Natukunda says.

She notes that sex workers should be given a Covid relief package since they have not been working for two years. She adds that many sex workers are languishing in jail over unclear charges.

What police say

The Kampala Deputy Metropolitan police spokesperson, Mr Luke Owoyesigyire, says the police are aware of people who move during curfew time, although they cannot say whether they are sex workers or not, and arrests are always made.

Mr Owoyesigyire notes that there has been laxity among commanders in enforcing curfew guidelines, especially when it comes to people operating bars and those who walk at night and the issue is being addressed.

“We are not aware of sex workers operating at night but we know of people who move past curfew time. Curfew guidelines are there to work in the interest of the people whether sex workers or not and we always ask people to abide by the laws,” he says.

A 2016 report on Human Rights Violations of Sex Workers in Uganda and authored by Women’s Organisation Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA), Crested Crane Lighters, and the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, indicate that police is at the centre of violating the rights of sex workers in Uganda.

The report points out that the criminalisation of sex work is a labour issue because it prevents sex workers from exercising their right to freely choose their work.

“The violation of sex workers’ free choice of work makes sex workers vulnerable to other abuses, including unsafe working conditions, denial of and inadequate remuneration, exploitation by brothel managers, and even difficulty in securing jobs in other sectors because of their history of sex work.”

The report by Global Campus of human rights says increased policing to enforce lockdown heightened the violence meted out to sex workers because state enforcers do not anticipate consequences for assaulting sex workers.

A May 2020 press statement released by the Uganda Key Populations Consortium denounced raids, arrests, extortions and attacks by law enforcement officers on sex workers, barmaids and other vulnerable communities.

Health measures that unfairly target sex workers and their clients have been a further problem. A Ministry of Health operation which focused on testing cargo transporters from neighbouring countries led to the arrest of more than 117 female sex workers, for whom truck drivers make up a large percentage of clients.

By adopting health policies that unfairly target sex workers and their clients, the work environment is made unsafe and unhealthy, which violates the constitutional right to work in a safe and healthy environment.

The law

Sections 138 and 139 of Uganda’s Penal Code Act of 1950 criminalises prostitution.  Under Section 138, a “prostitute is as a person who in public or elsewhere, regularly or habitually, holds himself or herself out as available for sexual intercourse or other sexual gratification for monetary or other material gains.” 

Under Section 139, any individual engaged in selling sex can be imprisoned for up to seven years. Third parties such as brothel owners, also face up to seven years imprisonment for “living wholly or in part on the earnings of prostitution.”