Although sex work is illegal in Uganda, providing services and support for sex workers is not.
Despite this, women human rights defenders (WHRDs) who promote the rights, health and safety of sex workers in Uganda have been persecuted, harassed and arrested. Ugandan authorities insist that all activities related to sex workers are illegal, calling them “criminal” and as a result, NGOs that provide services to sex workers face arbitrary arrests and detention of staff, office searches, and seizure of office property.
One such organisation is the Women’s Organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA). Legally formed in 2008, WONETHA works to improve the health and social and economic wellbeing of adult sex workers in Uganda. Valuing and respecting the rights of sex workers who want to exit, WONETHA helps prepare them to start a new livelihood by building skills in leadership, economic empowerment, personal development and entrepreneurship. Importantly, WONETHA provides information on HIV and AIDS, and sexual and reproductive health and rights.
On 7 May 2012, officers of the Uganda Police Force physically assaulted and arrested two staff members of WONETHA after they refused to take the officials to WONETHA’s Drop in Center in Gulu city. Without a warrant, the police searched the office for more than an hour, examining files, books, leaflets, brochures and other documents with information about WONETHA’s members as well as accessing their computers. They then confiscated a computer, cashbooks, leaflets, project proposals and condoms.
The two WONETHA staff members were held at the police station without being informed of the charges against them. Three friends who went to the police station to find out what had happened were referred to as sex workers and also arrested. It was not until two days later when the women gave formal statements in the presence of their lawyers that they received information about the charges laid against them.
The five women were charged with “living on the earnings of prostitution” - which is the same law that targets third parties like pimps, brothel owners, advertisers and human traffickers - and could face seven years in prison.
Under Section 138 of the Penal Code in Uganda the definition of prostitute and prostitution limits culpability of the offence to the sellers of sex (the majority of whom are poor women) and not to the clients (mostly men). To make matters worse, the law targeting third parties for “living wholly or in part on the earnings of prostitution,” means that the dependents of a sex worker, such as her children or elderly parents, face the absurd risk of being included in this group .
According to WONETHA, sex workers experience routine violence from police, including rape, physical assault and having their genitals sprayed with pepper spray. Social disadvantage, discrimination and the criminalisation of prostitution in Uganda has left sex workers vulnerable to stigmatization and sexual and physical abuse from law enforcement officials.
The law has become an instrument of harassment and abuse by the police.
Defending the defenders
WONETHA Coordinator Kyomya Macklean, said that “those who speak out for human rights are often perceived as enemies of culture, religion and the State. Cultural and religious institutions believe that sex workers engage in ‘evil, un-African and inhuman’ behaviour and this has significantly affected the progress of human rights work in Uganda.”
WHRDs also experience stigmatization because of the source of their funding. As Uganda does not provide financial resources for this type of work, most funding comes from abroad, increasing the perception that promoting and protecting certain rights is an external agenda, hence threatening national sovereignty.
The government has pushed forward legal provisions aimed at restricting the work of WHRDs, including the Communication Interception Bill of 2007 and the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill that has been repeatedly raised in parliament, most recently in 2011.
AWID fully supports the vision of the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition that the raid on WONETHA’s offices and arbitrary detention of its staff constitutes a violation of international and regional human rights legislation to which Uganda is a signatory. In a public statement, the Coalition, of which AWID is a member, expressed that the act of arresting and charging the five women “is an attempt to criminalize the legal activities of a women human rights organization, behaviour that is solely based on discrimination against sex workers.”
Read more on WONETHA and the recent attacks:
 Tamale Silvia (2011), “Paradoxes of sex work and sexuality in modern-day Uganda”, in Tamale, S. (eds), “African Sexualities: A Reader”, Pambazuka Press, an imprint of Fahamu, Cape Town, Dakar, Nairobi and Oxford.
Research assistance by Katherine Ronderos, Women Human Rights Defenders Strategic Initiative, AWID