Uganda’s new criminalization bill further endangers those in the sex industry

“You have to live a double life.” Daisy Nakato Namakula, 38, has spent the last two decades in the sex industry in Uganda. The East African nation criminalizes ”sexual intercourse or other sexual gratification for monetary or other material gain” in its penal code, but the stigma alone is enough to enforce a culture of secrecy.

“You cannot be open about where you live and work,” she said. “You have to lie to your neighbors and children — telling them you do a [different] business — for you to be safe and comfortable.” Still, it remains a primary form of income for many — predominantly women and members of sexual minority groups — who see it as their best option to make a reliable living wage.

The job comes with significant risks: Sex workers face the constant threat of police raids, monetary fines, and sexual exploitation by clients and police officers, with no legal recourse to report this abuse when it occurs.

And in recent weeks, the work has become even more dangerous: New legislation is triggering a crackdown on the sex industry, especially in rural districts and low-income areas.

On May 3, the Ugandan Parliament voted to pass the 2019 Sexual Offenses Bill, which reinforces the criminalization of sex work and same-sex relations under the pretense of strengthening protections against sexualized violence. Uganda has long been hostile to the rights of LGBTQ+ people, criminalizing consensual same-sex relations as an “unnatural offense” with up to life in prison. The new bill goes one further by prosecuting Ugandans who engage in consensual same-gender sexual acts or anal sex even outside of Uganda.

The consequences of this new legislation will fall heaviest on women and marginalized groups during an already fraught year, as COVID-19 continues to ravage the health and economic security of many Ugandans.

Human rights organizations and activists have condemned the bill, claiming that it infringes on the rights of consenting adults. “We’ve always wanted to have a safe working environment, but now it’s going to be the opposite of what we have been advocating for,” said Namakula, who now works as the national coordinator of the Uganda Network for Sex Worker Led Organizations (UNESO), an advocacy network that partners with public health and government officials to support the safety and wellbeing of sex workers.

Namakula worries that the bill will be a significant setback to UNESO’s organizing capacities. UNESO leaders have been working to organize a dialogue between the Ministry of Health and sex workers’ advocates across Uganda, but those discussions have been delayed due to current COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, which prevent gatherings of more than 20 people. “The national dialogue was going to be very helpful in bringing every player on board,” she said, “but now that it may not happen soon, we are trying to strategize to make sure we engage everyone.”

As the bill awaits signing by President Yoweri Museveni, its repercussions are already being felt within the community. “There is a lot of tension,” said Kyomya Macklean, executive director of the Alliance of Women Advocating for Change (AWAC), a grassroots initiative calling for better health care access and economic opportunity for women sex workers in Uganda. “Police in the rural districts are intimidating people, saying, ‘If [the president] signs that document, you are dead. You should find another way to survive.’”

Many sex workers have retreated into hiding, no longer attending support groups or seeking health care services like STI testing, birth control, and PrEP for HIV prevention. “This act is really going to take us back,” said Macklean, who feels betrayed by the government and frustrated that the concerns put forth by the sex workers’ movement are not being heard. “If the president has not even signed it yet and this is already happening, what is going to happen if the bill is actually signed into law?”

Decriminalization and deconstructing stigma

Rather than protecting the rights of those in the sex industry to access healthcare or justice in cases of abuse (challenges they face on a day-to-day basis), advocacy groups argue that this bill only contributes to a culture of abuse, making sex work seem inherently like a dishonorable occupation.

“The term ‘sex work’ represents what we do, and it’s not derogatory,” Namakula explained to me. “We even have a term in our local language, Nekolera gyange, meaning ‘entrepreneur.’” Using these terms, she said, helps legitimize the profession. “You wake up, you dress up, and you go out knowing you are going to make money,” she said. “You go out with intention — not just loitering around looking for people to sleep with.”

Sex trafficking does happen in Uganda, Namakula said, but not often. “We will see people who have been trafficked being taken to outside countries, but it is not very common here.” In 2018, the Ugandan government identified 18 cases of sex trafficking of children and 15 cases of sex trafficking of adults within the country; by contrast, it identified 599 cases of Ugandan travelers (477 of whom were women) attempting to leave the country in situations considered high risk for trafficking.

Occasionally, Namakula said, there will be cases in which a sex worker is coerced into the work by a relative or stranger, who then takes any money she makes for themselves. To this point, Namakula emphasized the importance of agency and personal choice. “As a movement, we strongly disagree with trafficking,” she said. “We believe someone should be above 18, able to make their own decisions, and choose to be in the industry — not forced.”

Namakula, Macklean, and other advocates have been working for years to end the cultural stigma against the sex industry in Uganda and to campaign for decriminalization. For them, that starts with countering the prevailing narrative that sex work is always a last resort. “No one believes that you can wake up and make a decision that you want to be a sex worker, and yet we have,” said Namakula. “There might be other options, but you feel like being a sex worker is the best option for you.”

Namakula worked in food service in her early career but wasn’t able to make a reliable salary. Sex work, she said, gave her financial stability. “When you have money, you are an empowered woman,” she asserted. “You decide which house to rent; you decide what to eat; you decide what to do with your life.”

Regardless of what motivates someone to enter into the sex industry — financial opportunity, family circumstances, personal history, or otherwise — Macklean said that decriminalization would help make the industry safer and protect those vulnerable to mistreatment.

“Sex workers should be left to operate just like any other profession in the country,” she said. “If we can do that, it would give us a way to protect the young minors [getting involved in] this business. We would be able to track those who violate the rights of sex workers and report [those] cases.”

Macklean wants to see a legal distinction between adult sex workers who work of their own free will and minors who are coerced into the industry — the latter of which should not be considered sex work, both women adamantly assert. Decriminalization would also allow for laws protecting sex workers from being denied health care services or subjected to blackmail.

One significant issue right now is sexual and financial exploitation of sex workers by police — something made worse in the wake of this new legislation. “We use a lot of out-of-pocket money to bail ourselves and others out,” Macklean said. Officers will raid a brothel and ask for US $50 or $100 per sex worker to keep everyone out of detention. Worse, they may solicit free sex from a sex worker as a means of bail. “They’ll say, ‘If you want to go home, you know what to do,’” she said.

Even if a sex worker acquiesces, the officer often brings her right back into detention afterward. “You are traumatized, you are being abused, [and] the police probably don’t even have condoms,” Macklean said. “You are being put at risk.”

On the health front, decriminalizing sex work could aid in Uganda’s fight against HIV. Uganda’s HIV rates are among the highest in the world: an estimated 1.5 million people in the country are HIV-positive, or 6 percent of the population. Sex workers are an especially vulnerable group by nature of their industry — around 31 percent of sex workers are currently living with HIV.

Namakula worries that the Sexual Offenses Bill will discourage productive relationships between health providers and sex workers. While it is not illegal to provide these services to sex workers, health providers may shy away from doing so for fear of police retribution. “When you are offering health services, you are also ‘aiding and abetting’ the industry,” she said. “So, it will now be very challenging for sex workers to come out to access services.”

Namakula and Macklean, with their respective organizations, are ultimately fighting for the right of sex workers to live and work freely, just like anyone else. “I am still a human being,” Namakula said. “I am still a woman and so many things besides what I do for a living. As much as I am a sex worker, I also have a right not to be arrested or violated or treated differently.”

The legal landscape continues to be stacked against the movement, yet its advocates aren’t backing down. “If we can decriminalize,” said Macklean, “it will be safe for us to work, look after our family, and continue with a good life like any other profession.”

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