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Oil money lures sex workers to Hoima

Across the world, infrastructure projects that employ large numbers of men soon attract a camp following of sex workers.  It is now happening in Hoima.

“I can’t leave with you now but I can come to your hotel in the morning and we spend the whole day together.”

So says Sarah (not her real name) a ‘waitress’ in a down-town Hoima bar. She says she would get into big trouble if she left without the permission of her boss—an elderly lady who, according to staff and customers, is of Rwandese origin. All dealings with men have to be cleared by the boss.

Sarah enjoys perfect cover as a waitress in this cheery, dusty town, but the real aim is to meet clients willing to pay for sex.

Unlike the other bar staff, she and two other young women hardly serve a drink to any of the revellers in the fully-packed joint.  The only times they go to the counter it is to pick a drink for themselves, offered by one of the customers.

Residents and leaders of the town say the sex trade in Hoima has increased over the last couple of years, as young women flock to the oil-rich district in search of opportunities.

“Sex trade was there before but it was not evident. Now that there is oil, the trade is booming,” says Hoima Municipality Mayor, Grace Mary Mugasa.

“I am told that some people go to Kampala, pick some sex workers and put them on a minibus and bring them to Hoima especially on Fridays. They return to Kampala on Sunday or Monday,” she adds.

Some individuals have established themselves as pimps, vending the girls to the highest bidder. Because most local girls are scared of engaging in the sex trade openly, these bosses lure women from other districts, including Kampala.

“I come from Nateete (a Kampala surbub) where I was living with my mother,” Sarah revealed. “My sister brought me here to work at this bar,” she said, speaking fluent Luganda.

Barely more than 20 years old, Sarah said that her boss controls all eight girls working at the bar and any man interested in any of them has to talk to her first.

Once cleared by the boss, the client can hire any of ten rooms at the back of the bar for ten thousand shillings a night.

One of the rooms serves as the girls’ living quarters.

Jackie (not her real name), a tall, brown woman possibly in her mid twenties, confirmed that indeed the boss could punish Sarah if she went off with a man for the night. Jackie, however, offered to put in a good word for her, saying that she was from Rwanda too and related to the boss.

Jackie has been in Hoima for a year.  She says she is unemployed but suggestively adds that she could “do anything”, implying that she too is available.

At another bar, Grace (not her real name), also a ‘waitress,’ says she can leave at the end of her shift.

In her twenties, Grace says that she comes from Kakoba, a suburb of Mbarara town, and comes to Hoima to work for three months at a time.

Working at bars seems to be the cover of choice for Hoima’s sex workers. Only a few ply their trade publicly at another down-town bar and lodge called Sax Pub, next to the bus park. There, the transactions are done in the open, as in some places in Kampala.

The sex workers charge between ten and fifteen thousand shillings, although foreigners are likely to spend more.

Down to the village

But the price is at least three times that in rural areas, especially those close to the oil fields.

In Kabale parish, where the government plans to build an oil refinery, Julius Ssekate, the vice chairman of Kitegwa village told Oil in Uganda the influx of foreign contractors into the area has boosted the sex trade.

“Sex is the most booming business around here. Women are highly demanded for by the contractors who work in the oil wells and on the road,” he says.

According to several men in the village, the women here charge between 50 and 100 thousand shillings for their services. Such steep charges eliminate local residents as customers, as only the foreign workers can part with such sums.

In this area, the majority of the clientele is from KOLIN Construction, the Turkish firm building the 92 kilometre Hoima-Kaiso Tonya road.

In addition to having enough disposable income, locals say, the Turkish workers do not understand the currency well and hence end up paying more. Some are forced to use a middleman to get to the girls because they cannot speak any of the local languages.

Therates differ depending on whether the client is interested in protected or unprotected sex.

In some areas, unprotected sex is cheaper than safe sex because of local perceptions within the industry. According to some community workers, the sex workers appear to believe that clients who demand protected sex may be infected with HIV/AIDS and hence should be charged more money.

“The situation is worrying because we are going back to the battle we won years ago in managing the AIDS scourge,” says Conrad Mugume who works for a local community based organisation that is involved in HIV prevention.

Local leaders look on

Despite the secretive nature of the sex industry, everyone is aware of its growth in Hoima, but local leaders have done little about it.

Yet given its implications for public health, community leaders have focussed on initiatives to protect the health of the involved parties.

According to the 2011 Uganda AIDS Indicator Survey (UAIS), HIV prevalence in the mid-western region, of which Hoima is part, was 8.2 percent, almost one percent higher than the national average of 7.3 percent.

The demographics in the region will most likely be destabilised by the steady migration of fortune seekers from other parts of Uganda into the area. Some of these people are coming from areas with an even higher HIV prevalence rate, like the central region.

Grace Mary Mugasa, points out that even a good number of the hawkers who were chased from the streets of Kampala last year have ended up in Hoima.

“Our borders are so porous. Some Congolese have settled down and are now residents,” she adds.

She says that the Alliance of Mayors fighting HIV/AIDS, manages a project called Most At Risk Populations (MARPS), which is aimed at mitigating some of the risks faced by the sex workers.

“The sex workers are among the MARPS. We have had several meetings with them. We have tried to befriend them and counsel them and they even disclose to us some of the reasons why they became sex workers,” she says.

“Most of these women engaging in the sex trade are semi-illiterate, some are orphans, others have been disappointed by their husbands, while others have been chased away from their homes because of domestic violence,” she adds.

 

Mrs. Mugasa further explains that the District has started some initiatives, like vegetable growing, to engage some of the sex workers “to enable them earn a living from descent businesses.”

Legalisation calls

Civil society organisations have persistently called on government to legalise the sex trade in Uganda so that it can be better regulated.

Section 139 of the Uganda Penal Code Act, criminalises prostitution, with culprits liable to a seven year jail sentence.

Rose Nakayi, from the Human Rights Peace Centre, told Oil in Uganda that government should consider institutionalising the trade without conflicting with the law.

“The move from criminalization to protection of the sex workers should be the key issue,” she said. “We have seen that arresting the sex workers has not stopped them from conducting the business and more young girls are being groomed in this kind of activities,” she observes.

“We should focus on how the activity can be regulated in such a way that we do not only protect the sex workers but also avoid having them exploited by their clientele,” she says.

The Federation of International Women Lawyers (FIDA) Uganda Chairperson, Laura Nyirinkindi, agrees and argues that the clandestine nature of the sex trade is aiding its expansion.

“If this exercise is legalised, government will be able to plan for the sex workers. For instance when planning for retroviral drugs, they will know that they are planning for sex workers, elders or other groups of people. They will know how much of the drugs should be sent to a given place,” she says.

Collins Muyizuka from the National Women’s Council, calls for a “more pragmatic” approach, in addition to legalising the trade.

“Government should create a Women’s Fund, something similar to the Youth Enterprise Fund, where these women can sign a Memorandum of Understanding that allows them to easily access soft loans that can enable them start business,” he advises.

“If the government can partner with NGOs and start small SACCOs (savings and credit societies) like in Kenya, then most of these sex workers will restrain from conducting this activity,” he urges.

But former Ethics and Integrity Minister, James Nsamba Buturo, believes that the church has a bigger role to play.

“The religious institutions should start warning the public about the dangers involved in sex work because even though we have a law that they should be arrested and imprisoned for seven years, these laws are not being used,” he said.

“The existence of these laws will not matter once the activity escalates, so people choosing to change is what will matter. What we should know is that our country is not prepared for the new lifestyle we are about to see,” he concludes.

 Report by CM,FN, BO