KAMPALA – As Uganda joins the rest of the world to commemorate the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (GBV) among all women and girls, the Alliance of Women Advocating for Change (AWAC) has launched the AWAC her legacy initiative, and the CHLEG Microfinance Bank in which they intend to empower all female sex workers (FSW) in Uganda economically.
Speaking at the launch during their fifth national annual sex workers’ dialogue at Hotel Africana, Ms. Macklean Kyoma – Executive Director – AWAC noted that oftentimes, female sex workers are neglected by the society and those who want to build a sustained life need support to encourage their resilience and self-help using a FSW centered approach to provide a safe, conducive, and supportive environment.
“As AWAC, working with sex workers and those with intersecting and vulnerable communities, we think it is a special day because today we have held a dialogue with different key stakeholders and the leaders of female sex workers across the country to launch a resilient female sex work sustainability model targeting female sex workers and adolescent girls engaging in sex work.”
“Specifically, our violence is about social-economic injustices. We have done it all, and we are working on HIV integration, around issues of reproductive health, we have distributed condoms, lubricants and it’s time now we integrate the social-economic component because the HIV prevalence is still raising, still persisting among sex workers and unless we join government to come up with a community innovative models to team up with them to make sure that whoever is enrolled on ART is able to adhere but also those who have not been affected can get enrolled on prep, then we shall be able to reduce new infections,” she noted.
Ms. Kyoma says this model looks at skilling the sex workers so that they are able to save their own money and invest but also to loan out among themselves.
“Sex workers save at the end of the year they are able to raise about sh40-70m depending on the number. We are saying how about now we consolidate and make it one group and have a bank and then people are able to access loans with very limited requirements and low interest so that they are able to invest in other side businesses.”
However, Kyoma decried stigma discrimination which she says is so much fueled by a criminalization environment of sex work.
“Even if the environment is enabling in terms of the social environment where they are operating, some other people decide to take advantage in terms of money extortion, increasing stigma which causes low self-esteem which affects their health-seeking behaviors but also to adhere to antiviral drugs.”
Dr. Daniel Byamukama from Uganda AIDS Commission does not agree with policemen who harass, beat, steal money and even arrest sex workers.
“They do it in their personal capacity, not representing the government.”
He commended AWAC for always coordinating sex workers and sensitizing them on HIV prevention, noting that the national HIV response emphasizes the involvement of all communities – from planning, coordination and implementation.
He asked Uganda police to take a leaf from Kenya which has a policy of training police during pre-service to educate them on the needs of key populations to give them their space.
“If Kenya does it, why can’t Uganda? We are arranging to take a few senior police officers to Kenya so that we can adopt that.”
Dr. Byamukama, however, noted that despite all the work done, there is very little improvement in HIV reduction among sex workers.
“Yes, we are not as bad as we used to be 15 years ago but when it comes to HIV infections, we aren’t getting better.”
Ms. Sarah Nakku from the United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS – UNAIDS Uganda noted that the studies indicate that HIV among the key population communities, sex workers are affected more.
“Despite the fact that the law concentrates on the sex workers and leaving behind their partners, we are aware that one sex worker if they decided can transmit HIV to more than 20 people on a weekly basis.”
“So tapping into sex workers is very critical for us and we know that as they continue doing sex work the economy is also being hard in terms of them managing. When the pandemics come, one of the affected groups is the sex workers. We know that the law doesn’t guarantee them but they are there and people actually utilize their services,” she said.
She says that without economic empowerment of key populations especially sex workers so that they can ably be sustained and continue surviving even when there are hardships like pandemics, efforts by the government and development partners to end pandemics will be resultless.
“We are trying to work with them to ensure that we have a reduction because with Ebola if you have healed from it, you have to take a duration of 120 days without interacting sexually but I don’t think if one went to a sex worker and they have suffered from Ebola, they can persist and say they won’t.”
On ending HIV transmission, Nakku says there a need to senstetize these groups but also allow them to access services, just like any other person.
“The more you give them knowledge, the more they know how they can prevent and the more they know even when they are infected with HIV, how to adhere to treatment so that they don’t transmit to another person because the studies clearly show us that when you adhere to treatment, you suppress your viral load so you are not in a position to transmit.”
“We need also to give them services like condoms, prep, lubricants and ARVs,” she said.
She challenged the government not to see them as the promoters of sex work “but we know that these communities exist. When you are addressing an epidemic you don’t segregate communities because the one that you neglect will be the one to accelerate that disease. We know the laws do not support sex work in the country but if you don’t give them services, how will you fight the epidemic or the pandemic in other groups that you allow to function in the country.”
Dr. Andrew Kambugu – Executive Director at Infectious Diseases Institute revealed that the key populations are critical if the country needs to end HIV and AIDS.
“If we do not address the needs of those populations, we cannot end HIV because infections can spill off from these populations into the general population and all the important work we’ve been doing for the last four decades will be affected.”