Forty-four Ugandan sex workers were arrested on 14 July, 2017 in Abayita, at a crisis meeting organised in response to a series of brutal murders in the Abayita, Katabi, Nkumba and Nansana areas of Uganda. A report by the Uganda Minister of Internal Affairs indicates that at least 21 women were found brutally murdered between 3 May and 4 September of this year. Many of these women were raped before being killed and had sticks inserted into their genitals. The victims were usually dumped in deserted locations close to their places of residence. Inspector General of the Uganda Police Force Kale Kayihura has reported that the majority of the victims were sex workers.
The 14 August meeting was organised by sex workers in Abayita after learning that one of their colleagues was among those murdered. According to the Kuchu Times, the group held the meeting to raise money to retrieve her body from Mulago hospital and cover transportation costs to her ancestral home in Mbarara, western Uganda, and to share security tips.
The sex workers were arrested at the meeting and charged with public nuisance violations, which carry penalties of three months in jail or a cash fine of Ugx. 150,000.
Upon the arrest, the sex workers contacted NSWP member WONETHA for support, Namusisi Allen, a sex worker and Paralegal at WONETHA, told the Kuchu Times. WONETHA then worked with the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), an organisation that offers free legal services to the marginalised groups, to intervene and secure bail. All efforts to bail the sex workers out were futile, and they remained in detention for over two weeks, from 14 July to 2 August.
‘‘Sex work is criminalised in Uganda,” Diana, WONETHA advocacy and communications officer, told NSWP, and sex workers routinely face arbitrary arrests and unfair trials. “Since it’s very hard to prove the offence of Prostitution, then alternatively and in most cases, sex workers are charged with the offence of being rogue and vagabond,” Diana said. “Sex workers opt to plead guilty to the charges in quest for quicker justice,” despite being warned that doing so may have implications, since “a criminal record is entered against sex workers [upon pleading guilty to charges].’’
The arrest of the Abayita sex workers was among other harmful responses by the Uganda Government to the murders. Police Inspector General Kayihura had organised outreach to 500 sex workers to warn them of the danger. However, rather than supporting sex worker safety and community responses to murders, Kayihura urged sex workers to leave the sex industry and ‘denounce prostitution’.
Although thirteen suspects have been arrested and charged, it is unclear whether these suspects were responsible for all of the murders, and statements by the Internal Minister and Police General have contradicted each other. The body of another woman who had been murdered in a similar way was found on 19 September, after the arrests.
WONETHA criticises the government response: “This simply shows the police failed to protect sex workers, and to apprehend the culprits,” Diana said. “The negative impact that the deaths has on the sex workers is huge. The deaths have made sex workers more vulnerable and also created a lot of fear amongst clients, sex workers and their family.”
Criminalisation of sex work in Uganda, and new anti-sex work laws, also contribute to the insecurity of Ugandan sex workers that allowed these murders to happen. “The enactment of the Anti-Pornography Act 2014, the HIV Act 2014 and NGO Act of 2016 have result in increased insecurity on sex workers,” Diana said. More information about the Anti-Pornography Act and WONETHA’s earlier advocacy against the Act is available here.
The Uganda Government has also been considering new laws that would further criminalise sex work. The Sexual Offences Bill, tabled by Parliament in Spring, 2016, Diana said, “further looks at criminalising sex work as prostitution, it criminalises people who encourage others to enter into sex work, pimps, brothel owners and creates a new offence to criminalise those who buy the sex.”
According to Diana, “Decriminalisation of sex work in Uganda is still a process, and WONETHA is implementing different activities to achieve…decriminalisation.” WONETHA’s activities include sensitisation and working with the Ministry of Health, AIDS Commission and other government bodies.
Although suspects have been apprehended in the murders, “WONETHA is also planning for a peaceful demonstration soon regarding the many deaths of women,” Diana said. “No other women organisation is paying attention, and police are not providing the public with the report on the investigations of the murders.”