Kampala, Uganda – Down a muddy alley in a slum in Wabiduku on the eastern edge of Kampala, past vendors hawking bits of fried fish and rubber flip flops, sits a bright, pink shipping container. It is painted with cartoon condoms and banners advertising the importance of HIV/AIDs testing.
This unexpectedly colourful place in the Ugandan capital is operated by the Lady Mermaid Empowerment Centre. It is an organisation led by sex workers fighting to decriminalise their profession while documenting violations and providing free contraceptives and counselling.
It works with 25,000 women annually, spread across 122 hot spots – street corners, bars, brothels and lodges – in Kampala and two other districts.
“What motivates me every day are the little things I do in terms of services to sex workers,” Sanyu Hajarah Batte, the centre’s executive director, told Al Jazeera. “It’s key to me when I put a smile on the face of a sex worker, but also to change their lives.”
Her task is a difficult one in a conservative country where prostitution is outlawed under the colonial-era penal code, punishable by up to seven years in prison.
Sex workers live on the margins of Ugandan society, in danger of abuse by their clients, stigma from their neighbours and disdain from a police force meant to protect them.
Nowhere to turn
Most days, Aaliyah* arrives at the Lady Mermaid drop-in centre amid the mid-morning bustle and heat. For the next few hours, she’ll help welcome fellow sex workers to this small refuge. She offers cups of tea; a place to rest and a shower; informational brochures to read.
“This is home,” Aaliyah, 29, tells them.
When evening sets in, the women return to brothels a short walk away. They begin the night’s business over the blare of music and the stench of beer mingled with sweat and urine.
The lodges are made of rickety clapboards, constructed atop dark bars painted with fluorescent images of naked, dancing women. Children play in dank corners. The lights of the city glimmer in the distance.
Aaliyah began sex work at 17. Her parents had died, leaving her with two younger siblings to look after. A man promised to marry her and help care for the children, so she slept with him.
Afterwards, he changed his mind, advising her instead to make money selling her body. Clients would pay about 5,000 Uganda shillings (about $1.30), offering a little more for sex without a condom.
“You come to Kampala when you are alone,” Aaliyah said of sex work. “You don’t have a family near you.”
Batte, the centre’s director, knows these challenges first hand.
Her uncle raped her when she was 14, just after she’d had her second menstrual period. She became pregnant from the assault, giving birth in her early teens. Her parents later declared that she must marry her uncle to save the family from shame.
Leaving her infant daughter behind, Batte fled her home.
In dance clubs, she looked for men who could provide a meal or a warm place to sleep. Eventually, older women taught her how to get consistent clients, offering a room and teaching her the ropes of the job.
“Sex workers [were] my first family,” she said.
Now, she offers empathetic support through Lady Mermaid Empowerment Centre programmes.
“Mine isn’t the worst, because I’ve documented worse stories of sex workers,” Batte told Al Jazeera matter of factly, her voice hoarse.
Climate of fear
Sex workers interviewed by Al Jazeera said men often refuse to wear condoms, beat them and steal money at knifepoint.
Rasheeda*, another sex worker in Wabiduku, showed Al Jazeera deep scars and scratches on her arm, the result of attempted robberies and rapes.
She began doing sex work at 28 years old, hoping to get enough food for her children after her husband died. It has been more than two decades, and the job has been hard on her body.
Attempts to report challenges and violations to the authorities are futile.
“The police tells us ‘You people, you sell yourselves. What do you want us to do?’ Wherever we go, we are not given any help,” Rasheeda said.
Health services for sex workers are also limited and have been further restricted since Uganda passed one of the harshest anti-homosexuality acts in the world.
Signed into law in May, it punishes consensual same-sex relations, already illegal in Uganda, with heavier prison terms and even death. While the law itself does not directly target sex workers, it has contributed to an environment of paranoia, cutting them off from already limited support.
The Lady Mermaid Empowerment Centre was also listed among 22 organisations under investigation for “promoting homosexuality” in a report leaked from the Uganda NGO Bureau earlier this year. This too is now considered illegal under the new law.
“When the bill had just passed, it was really difficult,” explained Nabira Namawanda, who is the communications and advocacy officer at Lady Mermaid Empowerment Centre. “Sex workers even went into hiding.”
“We all feared to go out and [give] services to our communities,” added Batte.
Hearings challenging the law began with written submissions in Uganda’s constitutional court this week. But even if it is quashed, activists say hardships the legislation caused will endure, along with increased panic.
“When the bill was [introduced], we went back to ground zero,” Dorothy Nakayenga, a programme manager at the centre, said.
The pending judgement coincides with the Christmas season, already a difficult time for sex workers. They hope for busy nights, while men want to celebrate for less money, holding on to their own savings before the holiday.
It is also harder to get clients in the first place.
“People move out for the Christmas holidays and go to the villages,” Hope, 46, said. She’ll spend the day with her children but hasn’t yet made enough money for a celebration this year.
Road to justice
Batte longs for a day when sex work is decriminalised in Uganda, and across the African continent, when sex workers will be free to live their lives like other professionals.
This begins at the grassroots, she said. “Before we even go to courts of Uganda to get our justice as sex workers … we need to first sensitise communities,” Batte told Al Jazeera.
For now, in the face of difficulty and danger, the women are using the money they make in brothels to provide for themselves and their families.
“Through sex work, I have given birth to my children, looked after them [and] saved some small, small money,” Hope said.
Aaliyah plans to one day build a house for herself, and use the money she makes to give her children the education she never had. Each small victory is another step on a path to safety and security.
In her vision for the future, Batte imagines clinics offering services without discrimination, women even in rural areas prepared to report violations, and most of all, people able to advocate for themselves.
“I see a community of educated and empowered sex workers who can challenge the law,” Batte said.
*Names have been changed to protect individuals’ identity
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