Uganda: Phones Protect Uganda's Sex Workers From Police Harassment

Telecoms

Nairobi — In Uganda, sex work is illegal and highly stigmatised, making women vulnerable to unlawful arrest, rape, bribery, beating and murder

When Fatia, 25, leaves her home to sell sex in the grungy hotels and hastily parked cars of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, she keeps her hand clenched around her phone.

After three years, her biggest fear is not violent clients or exposure to HIV, but harassment by Kampala's police.

"The police start charging you. They say it (prostitution) is not allowed in the country," Fatia, who declined to give her full name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

"Some policemen even use you (for sex). They don't pay you and then still they take you to the station."

If arrested for prostitution, Fatia knows what to do. Call the emergency number for Lady Mermaid's Bureau (LMB) - a sex workers' advocacy organisation - and beep once.

A representative from the bureau soon arrives at the station to gently remind the police that harassment or bribery of any citizen, even a sex worker, is illegal.

If that fails, she may invoke the name of one of Fatia's influential clients to scare the police into releasing her.

Gentle persuasion generally works.

Ugandan police spokesman Andrew Felix Kaweesi denied systemic police harassment. However, he said instances of misconduct by individual officers was possible.

"The police have no policy of harassing the prostitutes on the streets," Kaweesi said.

"Those who are victims should report to our professional standards unit ... Absolutely nobody will punish them. We will listen to their complaints and follow it up."

In Uganda, sex work is illegal and highly stigmatised, making women like Fatia vulnerable to unlawful arrest, rape, bribery, beating and murder, rights groups say.

The Indigo Trust, a UK-based foundation under The Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts, gave Lady Mermaid's Bureau a grant in 2014 to help Ugandan sex workers fight abuse using technology.

It has provided around 1,000 sex workers across Uganda with information-loaded digital memory cards so they can use their phones to learn how to protect themselves against violence, HIV/AIDS and unwanted pregnancies.

The material is available in multiple languages, and in written and video format, to maximise the number of women who can access it.

"They read them, follow them and do their work safely," said Oliver Musoke, executive director of Lady Mermaid's Bureau and a former sex worker.

The cards make it easier to reach larger numbers of women than through face-to-face counselling. Read the full story in All Africa here: