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Uganda teenage commercial sex a survival hazard

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 13 Feb 2013 23:21 GMT
Author: hamidu-kizito
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Hamidu Kizito is programme coordinator at Rural Development Media Communications (RUDMEC). The opinions expressed are his own.

‘Kimombasa’ and ‘Angola’ are nicknames for densely populated urban informal settlements located  on the outskirts of Kampala city the capital of Uganda in Eastern Africa. The two locations are famous, among other things, for the thriving teenage commercial sexual exploitation. Teenage girls stay together in groups of 5-6 in 1 rented room that serves as their home. It is from here that they move to respective slum destinations to trade in commercial sex.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) is the exploitation by an adult with respect to a child or an adolescent – female or male – under 18 years old; accompanied by a payment in money or in kind to the child or adolescent (male or female) or to one or more third parties.

The ILO considers commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) an abhorrent violation of the human rights of children and adolescents and a form of economic exploitation similar to slavery and forced labour, which also implies a crime on the part of those who use girls, boys and adolescents in the sex trade.

Commercial sexual exploitation in children includes all of the following:

  • The use of girls and boys in sexual activities remunerated in cash or in kind (commonly known as child prostitution) in the streets or indoors, in such places as brothels, discotheques, massage parlours, bars, hotels, restaurants, etc.

  • The trafficking of girls and boys and adolescents for the sex trade.

  • Child sex tourism.

  • The production, promotion and distribution of pornography involving children.

  • The use of children in sex shows (public or private.)

Due to the illegal and culturally immoral nature of the practice, the documented national figure showing the actual number of teenagers involved in commercial sex is not certain. However, independent studies conducted by child-focused organisations indicate that the practise is on the rise and raising serious concern.

A study titled “Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Uganda", a critical review of efforts to address CSEC 2005 -2011 conducted in only 11 out 112 districts by Uganda Youth Development Link (UYDEL) show that the country is experiencing an upsurge in the number of children engaging in the sex trade from 12,000 in the year 2004 to 18,000 in 2011 (UYDEL, 2011).

“Many teenagers are actively engaged in commercial sex but fear to expose themselves. They are full of denial due to stigma “ says Carol Nakkonde a health officer working with UYDEL’  “We counsel  them, talk about HIV/AIDS and associated risks among others”.

A ‘senior’ commercial sexual worker owns a base called ‘Bala’. This is where the teenagers convene waiting for clients. She levies 1,000 Uganda shilling for room service each time they use the Bala while  the  teenage sex workers  earn  between 2,000 and 3,000/= ($.80 - $1.20) for each encounter. At times they offer sex on credit especially to regular and long time customers.

Like many other social economic problems facing developing countries, commercial sexual exploitation among teenagers is largely attributed to Poverty.   “All other causes of this problem have got very strong bearing on poverty” says Rogers Mutaawe a senior Programme Officer for Uganda Youth Development link (UYDEL).

The majority of the teenagers who are victims of CSEC come from families categorised among those living in absolute poverty. They are known to depend on less than $1 a day.

Lisa (not real name) hails from Kinyogozi village in Luweero District. She lost her parents at a tender age and was brought up by her maternal grandmother. She is now 18. In 2007, aged 13 years, she came to Kampala city.

“Our family was languishing in poverty. At times I suffered from domestic violence perpetuated by members of the largely extended family.  After miraculously completing primary seven, grandmother informed me that she was unable to provide the required support for secondary school education. I dropped out school, migrated to Kampala city where I got trapped in commercial sexual exploitation,” says Lisa.


The Uganda Poverty Status Report (2012) titled "Reducing Vulnerability: equalising opportunities and transforming livelihoods", a publication of the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development (MOFPED) indicates that 24.5 percent (7.5 million) Ugandans are living below the poverty line. At the same time, the number of people still vulnerable and insecure with the possibility of sliding back to poverty has risen from 11 percent in the same period to 13.2 percent.

In the rural setting, the main family breadwinners, the father and mother are employed in agriculture. Those living in urban slum areas, undertake informal sector casual work such as market vendors, roadside petty traders, streets, shops, office buildings cleaners, private security guards and manual transport carriage of goods in the city trading centres. Generally, they earn meagre income -- making them strain to adequately meet the family’s minimum basic necessities like food, shelter, healthcare and education requirements.

Poverty-stricken families struggle to support their children beyond primary seven. By this time, the majority are aged 12 and above. It is particularly worse for the girl child because of traditional African society gender stereo type and segregation. The current primary school completion rate is 57 percent (MOFPED 2012), implying that close to half of the entrants do not complete primary school level.

A study by the Makerere University Economic Policy research Centre (EPRC 2008) shows that enrolment at lower secondary level (13–16 years) is much lower than one at primary level. Out of the 57 percent primary school completion rate, only 27 percent of secondary school age children attend school. This data suggests a very low retention and transition rate from primary to secondary education, which constitutes a major challenge to the government’s programme of Universal Secondary Education.

Inevitably, the poverty status report (2012) indicates that children from vulnerable environments are much less likely to complete primary school. Vulnerable households find it difficult to make the long-term tradeoffs required to keep their children in school. Primary school dropouts will earn less as adults and their children will be less likely to receive a good education. This vulnerability trap is inequitable, and also undermines economic growth.

As a result, many girl children continue to drop out of school, entering informal employment by either joining their parent’s or relative’s work place or independently working as house maids and bar attendants.  Eventually, the majority get illegally ‘married’ or ‘graduate’ into teenage commercial sex.


Besides poverty, domestic violence is a growing key contributory factor to teenage commercial sex trade. In Uganda, gender and sex based violence (GSBV) is on the increase and worse among poor households.

Diana Kagere Mugerwa a National programme officer in charge of Media and Advocacy at the Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention (CEDOVIP) says that “95 percent of children have ... experienced domestic violence. Basing on the UDHS 2011, 56 percent of women have ... experienced physical violence since aged 15. While 60 percent of ... married women report physical violence by their current husbands/partners” says Diana. Many children from destabilised families are forced to leave their homes and get trapped in exploitative work.

According to CEDOVIP, domestic violence is on the increase manly due to family power imbalances between men and women that uphold dominant patriarchal cultural norms and values. When families breakdown, the children suffer most. They never have peace of mind and their studies are often disrupted. They end up dropping out of school and finally many girl children enter hazardous child labour including commercial sexual exploitation.

Vice characterised by high rate of crime, social violence, promiscuity and moral decadence are typical of urban informal settlements like ‘Kimombasa’ and ‘Angola’. The findings of a 2003 study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on Domestic Violence levels in Uganda, revealed existence of a very strong link between the risk of domestic violence ,alcohol consumption and women’s perceived risk of HIV of their male partner.

Due to the congested nature of urban informal settlement housing structures, families have failed to control children from peer community influence. For instance, many teenage girls have taken on commercial sex after stealthily attending and were immorally influenced by strip (nude dance night clubs) and adult prostitution activities common in this area.


With HIV/AIDS still prevailing amidst our communities, many families have lost one or both heads of the household.  Uganda’s HIV/AIDS prevalence rate shot up from 6.4 percent in 2005 to 7.3 percent in September 2011. According to the 2011 Uganda AIDS Indicator Survey (UAIS) report, the percentage increase is higher among women than men.

The prevalence rate increased from 7.5 percent to 8.3 percent among women compared to 5-6.1 percent among men. Over 130,000 new HIV infections are recorded in the country each year. Health minister Dr. Christine Ondoa, attributed the trend to promiscuity, where more people are having multiple sex partners.

“We (Uganda) have relaxed a bit and (national) prevalence has gone a bit high,” she says. “It is high among married couples and lowest through mother-to-child transmission.” However, it was also noted that more HIV infected Ugandans now live longer under Antiretrivals (ARVs) and this number feeds into the new infections to increase the prevalence rate.

In this regard, families are increasingly losing out on the bread winner of their meagre income. This has increased the level of the orphaned children’s vulnerability. The eldest children in child headed families are forced to start work to fend for their siblings. Since decent employment is very had to obtain, in many cases the girl child involuntarily continue to join the risky but available option of commercial sex work.


Apart from HIV/AIDS, human trafficking in Uganda is known to be on the increase.  “Uganda is a source and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Ugandan children are exploited in forced labor within the country in agriculture, cattle herding, mining, stone quarrying, brick making, car washing, scrap metal collection, bars restaurants, and the domestic service sector, and are exploited in prostitution” (Trafficking in Persons Report 2012 – Uganda).

Many children are willingly or unknowingly trafficked from rural areas with the promise of providing them with lucrative employment in urban centres. Some victims of commercial sex exploitation say they were enticed by human traffic agents to come to the city.  

“I was picked up from my village by a lady we called ‘Aunt’. She convinced my grandmother that there was high demand and ready employment in Kampala for teenage girl school drop outs.” When we reached the city, she instead turned me into her own house maid,” said Lisa.

"After some time, I got misunderstandings with my ‘Aunt’".

Through the advise of a peer friend, Lisa decided to escape from this home to work as a bar attendant. “My employer compelled me to have sex with him as a prerequisite for employment. I desperately accepted because of having no other option.” Eventually, she became a bar attendant but cautioned that keeping this job will be subjected to her loyalty to the employer through meeting his routine sexual demands and that of his customers.

Like Lisa, Lily (not real name) grew up in Nakaseeta village Luweero District. She dropped out of school after primary seven. She was brought up by a single mother. She came to Kampala City in 2008. “A friend of my mum picked me up.  I preferred to be a house maid, but the immediate employment available was becoming a waitress in a local bar."

“My daily work schedule spelled from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m the following day. I experienced sexual harassment and exploitation as an obligation for our customer motivation and retention. Whenever customers absconded without paying, our salaries would be cut,” says Lily.   

After working for one year, Lily left this job and became a house maid. The situation was not very different she says. “The husband of my master harassed me by constantly demanding for sex. It became unbearable and once again I decided to quit this job.”


World Bank statistics (2008) show that Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world. Uganda Police Inspector General, Kale Kayihura said youth unemployment is a time bomb. His message is meant to create debate and unlock ideas to address this plight.  Wherever there is unemployment and poverty, insecurity, crime, drug abuse and lawlessness are always close by.

Youth unemployment currently stands at 83 percent (Africa Development indicators 2008-2009). Statistics from the ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development (MOGLSD) indicate that around 400,000 youth are annually released into the job market to compete for the mere 9,000 jobs available.  This precarious youth unemployment situation partly provides fertile ground for thriving commercial sexual exploitation of children.


Teenage commercial sex is a very risky health hazard. It has serious social psychological and reproductive health problems. From the traditional social point of view, the practice is immoral. Traditional society does not approval of this practise.  "It is a scary, worrysome, associated with both self, social stigma and traumatising experience," says Lisa a former victim.

Under health perspective, rehabilitated teenagers testified having, suffered from multiple sexual transmitted infections (STI’s). “The most common STIs accounting for 80 percent are Candida, Gonnorea and Syphilis. HIV/AIDS infections stand at 30 percent” says Carol, UYDEL’s health officer.  “Some have suffered from HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancy as well as cervical cancer which partly result from prolonged untreated STIs."

“In many cases, we didn’t practice safe sex. Many of our clients preferred ‘live’ unprotected sex. We got STI’s, while others got pregnant”, said a former victim of commercial sex exploitation. “One of our colleagues developed reproductive health complications after aborting using crude methods. Intervention by professional medics recommended having her uterus removed”. Records from Uganda Bureau of statistics (UBOS 2012) show that Uganda has got a high teenage pregnancy rate of 24 percent.

Challenges associated with rehabilitation of teenage commercial sex workers include; having multiple partners who are not treated simultaneously. This result in reinfections. Peer pressure experienced by those that reform but remain in company of those still very active in trading sex. Some with children and official partners but have mutually agreed that the female partner continue practising commercial sex to raise some income.

During community outreach sessions, UYDEL health workers in partnership with Naguru teenage Centre conduct on site treatment for STIs and blood tests. They make referral for those with persistent STDs. They are referred to either Infectious Diseases institute (IDI) – Mulago hospital, Kawempe or Kawaala Health Centres. “In addition, we offer and advise them to use family planning services that include condoms, injections and tablets. Injections are the most popular and high on demand”. says Carol.


As a way forward, stakeholders are working together to stop this practice. The ILO convention 182 ratified by Uganda in 1999, categorise commercial sexual exploitation among the worst forms of child labour. Specifically, Article 3 (b) outlaws “the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances”.  

In addition, ILO Minimum Age Convention 138 (1973) Article 3(1), equally ratified by the government of Uganda states that “the Minimum age of admission to any type of employment or work which by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out is likely to jeopardise the health, safety, mortals of young persons shall not be less than 18 years.”

The Constitution of the Republic of Uganda Article 34(4) provides for the protection of children from socio economic exploitation and restricts them from performing work that is likely to be hazardous  or to interfere with their education or to be harmful to their health, physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.

Government through the MOGLD produced a National Child Labour Policy (November 2006) which among others covers and outlaws involvement of children in child labour including commercial sex exploitation. This was followed by the development of the National Action Plan on Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour in Uganda 2012/13 -2016/17.

Ironically, while Uganda is a signatory to major ILO conventions that call for zero tolerance to Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, recent research results indicate that the good policies and Conventions have not been translated into full implementation and practice.  

The ILO through the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (ILO/IPEC) has supported pilot interventions to combat this problem. Child focused organisations like Uganda Youth development link (UYDEL) were provided with technical and financial support to identify, withdraw and rehabilitate children practising commercial sex.

The rehabilitation package covers periodical counselling sessions, life skills training, treatment and undertaking training needs assessment. The teenagers are guided through available options to rejoin formal primary, secondary education or vocational skills training. Options under vocational skills training include:  catering, hair dressing, radio and television electronics, tailoring, secretarial and computer studies.

To avoid relapse and fall back into commercial sex, UYDEL maintains regular weekly get together behaviour change communication sessions (BCC’s). This is where beneficiaries come together once a week, to learn and share experiences. This equally serves as a counselling session to provide socio psycological support to those who are still haunted by the traumatising experiences while practising teenage commercial sex.

“Vocation skills training has provided me with a lifeline. I opted for a 1 year course in hair dressing at UYDEL centre in Kamwokya a Kampala suburb. I will be completing this course in a shot while and become self employed” says Lisa.

Lily who is enrolled at the same centre says, “there is need to strengthen free and government aided Universal Secondary Education (USE), promote vocational skills training and provide seed (capital) support to youth entrepreneurs”.

As part of the interventions, the Uganda Police Force is strengthening the component of community policing. This is intended to make Police more people friendly and work closely with the public. In doing so, the community is regularly interacting with the Police and working together to report, prevent and stop crime, social violence and moral decadence.

A special office section called ‘family and child protection unit’ was established to address all issues affecting disputes that are likely to cause or arise out of domestic violence which adversely affect women and children.

Multimedia interventions, using interactive radio, TV talk shows and discussions focusing on the subject  ranging from causes, effects, prevention, remedial measures and roles of the respective stake holders. Information, education, communication materials (IEC) and interactive educational popular drama and forum theatre sessions are a supplementary awareness package utilised for public awareness and social mobilisation campaigns.

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