Ugandan sex workers post highest HIV rates

By Elizabeth Acaye  |  Dec. 13, 2012 at 5:16 PM
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KAMPALA, Uganda (GPI)-- Nisha is a commercial sex worker in Kabalagala, a neighborhood outside Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Nisha, whose last name is withheld to protect her safety, says sex work enables her to support herself without an education. “I did not go far in school, and yet I have a good life from this,” she says. She stays in the business of sex work because she says the returns are higher than other jobs. She charges her clients between 100,000 Ugandan shillings ($40) and 300,000 shillings ($110). “Which job is going to give 200,000 shillings ($75) a night or slightly less?” she asks. “Do you expect me to go and work as a waitress for 120,000 shillings ($45), 12 hours a day, six days a week?” Nisha plans to engage in sex work until she makes enough money to construct a commercial rental building so that she can make a living in real estate. “I will not stop until I build a multiple-storied commercial structure in the city of Kampala,” she says. She acknowledges that sex work can be risky. “You have to study the client,” Nisha says. “The ones who are dressed nicely and act all educated are the ones who like bargaining and will usually gang-rape you.” She says that in these scenarios, sex workers have little power, so they do their best to protect against HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. “What can you do?” she asks. “It is your business! You just pray that none of them is infected or you try and offer them condoms.” Nisha sees a prospective client and abruptly walks away. “God is the one who protects us!” she says as she sashays seductively toward him. As a new study publicizes the high HIV-infection rate among female sex workers in Uganda, some local advocates urge the government to decriminalize sex work to increase their access to health care. But others insist that rehabilitation of sex workers is the better strategy. Officials say that the government plans to crack down on brothels, not decriminalize sex work. Meanwhile, the East African Community heads of state are considering a bill that would ensure care and protection to all citizens living with HIV and AIDS. Uganda has one of the highest rates of HIV infections in the world among female sex workers, who account for 15.7 percent of infections in Uganda, according to a study published in 2012 in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, a medical journal. The four-year study, funded by the World Bank and the United Nations Population Fund, found that 37.2 percent of female sex workers in Uganda are HIV-positive, compared with 8.5 percent of women of reproductive age who are not sex workers. “Considerations of the legal and policy environments in which sex workers operate and the important role of stigma, discrimination and violence targeting female sex workers globally will be required to reduce the disproportionate disease burden among these women,” wrote Dr. Stefan Baral of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who led the study. The Penal Code Act outlaws living on the earnings of prostitution in Uganda, penalizing it with seven years in prison. Some local advocates say that decriminalizing sex work would be the best way to enable sex workers to access the services they need to prevent HIV infection and treat HIV and AIDS. Juliet Katongole, director of Crested Crane Lighters, which advocates for the human rights of sex workers in Bwaise, a Kampala suburb, says there are many sex workers operating within Kampala.

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