When Macklean Kyomya came to the Ugandan capital, Kampala, at 19, she found work as a lap-dancer in a nightclub and was soon accepting money from clients in exchange for sex.
"I enjoyed the feeling of power I had over men; I had a pimp who looked after me so I was never forced to do anything I didn't choose to," she told IRIN/PlusNews. "I was still doing my A-levels, so the money helped pay my way."
A few years later, one of her clients introduced her to an NGO that tried to provide sex workers with alternative employment, but Kyomya felt that the men who ran the organization did not fully understand the needs of sex workers. Now 27, she and two other former sex workers - Daisy Nakato and Zam Namagembe - are running the Women's Organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA).
"No one was asking the sex workers what they wanted - they were simply giving them a little start-up capital to change careers," Kyomya said. "Many of them just end up back in sex work, either because they didn't want to leave in the first place, or whatever income generating project they started didn’t make anywhere near what they earned in sex work."
WONETHA's goals include the decriminalization of sex work in Uganda, fostering a clear understanding of the distinction between forced and voluntary sex work, and empowering sex workers to prevent the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. The organization - with nearly 1,000 members - represents male and female as well as gay and straight sex workers.
Denied human rights
"Sex work is still illegal in Uganda, but sex workers are people just like the rest, deserving of their human rights," said Agaba Maguru, a commissioner with the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) . "There is a hypocrisy about the way they are treated... No one wants to acknowledge them during the day, but everyone is a sex worker's friend under the cover of darkness."
Get the Flash Player to see this player.
|Watch IRIN/PlusNews reporter Keisha Rukikaire share her impressions of WONETHA's Macklean Kyomya|
"Constant police harassment is something many sex workers have to deal with - they are regularly arrested for being 'idle and disorderly'," Kyomya said. "And many sex workers are in the trade unwillingly, or operate in dangerous conditions, unable to negotiate condom use or even a decent price for sex."
According to a 2009 Modes of Transmission (MoT) analysis, only 58 percent of clients of commercial sex workers reported using condoms.
"Nobody should be forced into sex work, and such women need to be helped to make a living doing something else; for those who are doing it willingly, there is a need to create safe spaces for them to carry on their work," she added.
Excluded from dialogue
Kyomya noted that the exclusion of sex workers from discussions concerning them - including the formation of national HIV/AIDS policy and the drafting of the controversial HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Bill currently before parliament - shows the authorities are out of touch. "If you claim that sex workers are responsible for spreading HIV, shouldn't you then engage them in discussions about how to deal with this?"
The MoT analysis found that commercial sex workers, their clients and partners of clients contributed 10 percent of new HIV infections in Uganda.
"The Bill requires mandatory testing for a person convicted of prostitution or lewdness for purposes of criminal investigation," the UHRC's Maguru said. "These sorts of discriminatory laws can only drive marginalized communities deeper underground, which doesn't help protect them or their clients against HIV."
WONETHA has joined other members of civil society in condemning discriminatory clauses in the Bill.
Since its formation in 2008, WONETHA has negotiated a delicate truce between sex workers and the police in several towns, even convincing the Inspector General of Police to agree to look into police harassment of sex workers.
"We provide our members with education about condom use, sending condoms to the ones in rural areas, and negotiate with brothel owners to have minimum operational standards such as condom use and a baseline price for sex," Kyomya added. Members are also taught financial management.
Through the international women's empowerment NGO, Akina Mama wa Afrika, WONETHA's members are learning leadership and advocacy skills to better articulate their needs, and are interacting with and learning from other African sex worker networks, including South Africa's Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce and the Pan African Sex Worker Alliance.
"We need people to hear us and to respect us; sex work is a job like any other job," Kyomya said. "Soon we want to be able to march proudly on Labour Day with all the other professions."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions