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Helping Write The Story of Sex Workers in Uganda

The feet of a sex worker in Bwaise, a slum in northern Kampala. Photo Credit: Prudence Nyamishana

If you asked me why I set out to write a sex worker diary on my blog, I would tell you I did it out of sheer curiosity. I had heard stories that in Bwaise, a slum in northern Kampala, women were selling themselves for as little as 500 Uganda shillings (US$0.14). I wanted to get a first-hand view of the situation, and maybe share the story with readers of my blog. So I called up my friend Joseph, a community worker who has worked in this area for years.

The Bwaise slum is located five minutes from Kampala's Central Business District. Joseph was waiting for me when I disembarked from a commuter taxi one afternoon. After exchanging pleasantries, he led me through a narrow corridor. At the end of the corridor, the scene suddenly changed: this was not the Kampala I am used to. I saw mud-walled drinking joints full of men and women at noon. There was rubbish everywhere and Lingala music playing in the background. To navigate, Joseph and I had to jump over streams of sewage. We meandered our way through alleyways lined with wooden- and iron sheeting-walled shacks. I later discovered these were brothels, and that over 300 women come to this area daily to sell sex, by both day and night.

A woman in her late 40s greeted us at our destination. She told us her name and proudly introduced herself as the “Mama” of the sex workers. She invited us into a small room of about eight square meters, with a mud floor. In one corner was a run-down shelf with bottles of local gin. A double-decker bed and single bed were on the other side of the room. A child sleeping on the lower bunk caught my eye.

The Mama told us she rents out these beds to those that buy and sell sex. A bed goes for 500 Uganda shillings per use.

I told the Mama we were interested in raising awareness of the horrible conditions of sex workers in the Kampala slums so that decision-makers could pay attention and, hopefully, do something about it. Because Joseph had worked with her before, and one of her children was a beneficiary of one of Joseph’s programmes, she welcomed us. But she said we would have to pay for the time we spent talking to the women.

The Mama introduced us to a 28-year-old woman who works at her establishment. The woman spoke fluent English and was eager for her story to be told. She mentioned to me that she didn’t want money—all she needed was someone to talk to. I promised that I wouldn’t reveal her identity, but she insisted it didn't matter, as she had nothing to lose. Her story moved me.

When I published the story, it garnered an array of reactions on social media. Some commenters thanked me for telling the story, saying that they believed women were going to benefit. Others, however, questioned my motive for writing about the issue.

Some readers made certain commitments, many of which are yet to be fulfilled. One person promised to buy one of the women a phone; others sent cash. Some people even advised me to start an organization that could support a rehabilitation centre serving the needs of sex workers. I insisted, however, that my job was that of storyteller, and that as readers they, too, had a responsibility to do something about the issue if they really cared about it.

While my initial motive was sheer curiosity, spending time with the women at Bwaise allowed me to uncover deep-seated issues that Uganda hasn't really grappled with. Things like child trafficking, sex slavery, parental neglect, extreme poverty, violence against women and crime. The more I talked to the women, the more I realized that the issues they faced were bigger than I had thought. And it was overwhelming: I almost gave up after listening to the second story.

It was the encouragement I received from organisations that work on these issues that propelled me to continue writing. Not for Sale Uganda, a social enterprise that co-develops ventures, social projects and brands to end human trafficking, said this in response to my story about a sex worker called Kemirembe:

“We must work together on giving hope to the most vulnerable. Kemirembe’s story is very touching. Not For Sale is now incorporated in Uganda and mainly our work will target people in Kemirembe’s situation or a quite similar one, provide social intervention and other sustainable social enterprises that can provide them with alternative dignified work.”

A reader who shared one of the stories on his Facebook page received an email from a friend in the US, saying:

“I’m coming to Uganda in August. I’m looking to help women involved in prostitution,” they wrote. “If you know of anyone or are willing to help me find people or ministries that are wanting to help women please let me know.”

Benjamin Musaasizi, a co-founder of Divine Hearts, a Christian organisation, commented on the blog post.

“We at Divine Hearts Foundation do appreciate your efforts in bringing such realities to the rest of the world and we are committed to working with you so as to find ways of helping these sisters of ours.”

I met with Benjamin in person and he pledged, on behalf of his organisation, that he would pay school fees for two of the sex workers’ children. A pledge like this, if fulfilled, could make a serious difference in the lives of these children.

1 comment

  • Rick Stewart

    I read your story, and skimmed the comments.

    I notice a few people said prostitution needed to be legalized. I agree completely. This won’t make it an easy life, probably, but at least then the government will not be actively trying to make it worse.

    Banning things doesn’t work. Never has, never will.

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