It is estimated that 130,000 people out of a population of 44.2m people in Uganda are female sex workers,[ Makerere University School of Public Health, Uganda HIV&AIDS Legal environment assessment for key populations, August 2022, pg 1-2.] with female sex workers being the single largest key population group in Uganda.[ Above. ] Despite the overwhelming evidence of the public health benefit in protecting and supporting the empowerment of sex workers,[ See generally UNAIDS, Evidence for eliminating HIV-related stigma and discrimination, 2020. ] Ugandan law remains determinedly critical of sex work and sex workers in particular, and the regulation of sex work is steeped in a regulatory environment that encourages the marginalisation and abuse of sex workers. In 2020, HRAPF and AWAC reported a total of 167 verified violations of the rights of FSWS, with 98 of them occurring within the context of the criminal justice system and being perpetrated by state actors.[ Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, 2020 Report on the protection and violation of the human rights of sex workers in Uganda, 2021 at page 10.] A total of 139 violations were recorded in 2019, with 130 being perpetrated by state actors.[ Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, Report on the protection and violation of the human rights of sex workers in Uganda, 2019, at page 112 (2020).]
These statistics represent a continuous trend of abuse of the rights of FSWs, particularly within the criminal justice system. In 2016, HRAPF undertook a study into the enforcement of laws regulating sex work in Uganda and found that the criminal laws prohibiting sex work/ creating the offence of prostitution are often enforced by the police authorities, with several mass arrests on this ground, although these arrests are mainly for purposes of extorting the sex workers and charges of prostitution are very rarely brought against sex workers in courts of law.[ Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, Legal regulation of sex work in Uganda: Exploring the current trends and their impact on the human rights of sex workers, 2016 at page 38 – 42.] The same study however found that the mere existence of laws creating the offence of prostitution has been used to harass and extort sex workers and encourage violence and other human rights violations against sex workers in Uganda, often without redress.[ Above, pg 52-53. ] In both 2019 and 2020, HRAPF reported a plethora of human rights violations, and yet only a handful of these were addressed by the authorities in that period (8 out of 139 reported violations in 2019[ N 5 above, pg 23.] and 8 of 167 in 2020).[ N 4 above, pg 10. ] A study conducted by HRAPF on the enforcement of vagrancy laws in Uganda has also shown that sex workers and other poor and vulnerable populations are most affected by the enforcement of laws creating vague petty offences like being idle and disorderly, being a rogue and vagabond or being a common nuisance, and the existence of these offences as well as their enforcement both lead to violations of their rights, particularly by the state.[ For a full discussion on this, see Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, The enforcement of ‘Idle and Disorderly’ laws and its impact on the human rights of marginalised persons in Uganda, 2016.]
Further, studies conducted in the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic indicate that the new rules that were set in place for the control of COVID-19, particularly those that were meant to control movement and interactions in public entertainment spaces, significantly increased violence against sex workers while simultaneously curtailing access to justice for FSWs. In a rapid assessment conducted by AWAC in 30 districts of Uganda in March 2020, titled “the impact of COVID-19 among FSW, AGYW and Women Living With HIV/AIDs in Uganda”, indicated that out of 1124 respondents, 65% had experienced physical violence, 38% had experienced sexual violence, 72% had experienced psychological violence and all the respondents were experiencing distress due the COVID-19 pandemic.
A study by HRAPF also indicated that there was an increase in arbitrary arrests, physical and sexual violence against sex workers during the militarised enforcement of the COVID-19 restrictions, with sex workers bearing the brunt of the negative impact.[ Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, The impact of COVID-19 related restrictions on access to justice for key populations in Uganda: A case study of LGBT persons and sex workers in Kampala and Wakiso districts, June 2021 at pp 22 -28.] AWAC noted this same trend of abuse and harassment against sex workers.[ Alliance of Women Advocating for Change, ‘Uganda’s COVID-19 response is terrorizing women with arbitrary detention, blackmail and violence’ 30 April 2020, https://healthgap.org/press/ugandas-covid19-response-is-terrorizing-women-with-arbitrary-detention-blackmail-and-violence/ (accessed 10 November 2022).]
Therefore clear that there is urgent need to study the laws, policies and bye-laws that have created the backdrop against which violence against sex workers prevails and thrives in order to develop specific recommendations for addressing the challenges created by this legal environment. This report therefore presents a detailed analysis of the legal and policy framework affecting the rights of sex workers, focusing on the laws that catalyse violence against sex workers and deny sex workers access to justice in cases of abuse, and shares some experiences of violence as shared by sex worker-leaders across the country and from existing literature on the subject.
The assessment was qualitative in nature. Secondary data was collected through desk review. This was on the legal and policy framework on the protection of sex workers in Uganda and Uganda’s domestic laws and policies.
Primary data was collected through In-Depth Interviews with sex workers often conducted digitally through phone calls. Sex workers were interviewed in Gulu and Lira, in the Northern Region of Uganda; Tororo and Mbale in the Eastern Region, Arua in West Nile, Hoima and Mbarara in the Western region, Moroto and Kotido in the Karamoja Region and Masaka, Kiboga and Wakiso in the Central Region. A total of 20 sex workers were interviewed in these districts.
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