Female Sex Workers (FSWs) torn between starving or surviving at risk of their own health & safety.

May 11, 2020

BY Macklean Kyomya

The criminalized environment in which Female Sex Workers (FSWs) operate not only makes them prone to violence linked to enforcement of COVID-19 regulations but also leaves them torn between starving or pushing for survival and risk of their own health and safety.  

“I would rather die of COVID-19, or be flogged than sit back as I watch my children die of starvation” said Patricia a Kampala-based FSW. “One evening, while I sat there helplessly watching my little ones grappling with their second night on an empty stomach, I received this phone call from one of my clients.  I couldn’t stand their angry starving looks. So I sneaked out to meet him. On my way, I was ambushed by stick wielding and armed men who subjected me to fierce beatings. I sustained excruciating injuries on my buttocks and back and spent the night in jail. The following day, my colleagues sold my table to secure my release.”  This event was shared by Patricia during a recent assessment conducted by AWAC. Patricia is one of the 130,359 FSWs in Uganda (Uganda’s KP size estimation report 2019). 

The assessment was conducted by the Alliance of Women Advocating for Change (AWAC) on the level of awareness of COVID-19 and its impact on access and adherence to HIV treatment and preventive care, psychological and socioeconomic wellbeing of FSWs, in 31 districts of Uganda. 

75% of the 1,209 respondents were single mothers with children/dependents, 20% were lactating mothers. 941 were starving and had not accessed any relief food supplies. 210 were defaulting on ARVs or PrEP and contraceptives due to starvation. 

The abrupt Presidential Directive banning public transportation, closing bars & lodges left many FSWs without shelter. 241 of the 1209 respondents could not afford rent. So they locked themselves indoors. Often, stick wielding gunmen would break into the lodges flog them, rape some & extort all the FSWs little earnings. 157 had been arrested 25% had been tortured during the arrests & detention.  

Below is another statement shared by a  Sex Worker with the leadership at AWAC secretariat: 

 “…the situation here is unbearable. The cold hand of death due to starvation is holding us under its fierce grip. It’s difficult to take ARVs or PrEP on an empty stomach, please come to our rescue “–Annet Kyotera  

  Two thirds of respondents had money extorted by security operatives, and 65% of 1209 respondents had experienced physical or sexual violence. 

 AWAC urges the government and partners to prioritize FSWs among the vulnerable populations to receive social resilience, assistance incentives, food, shelter support, personal protective equipment, and benefits from gender-based violence prevention and response programs and psychosocial support services.

About AWAC: Since its inception in 2015, AWAC has passionately been at the forefront advocating for gender justice and implemented programs in quest for a supportive Policy & Social environment where rural and  peri-urban grass root FSWs live free from human rights abuse in order to live healthy & productive lives in Uganda.