Regional stakeholders’ dialogue meeting on health and human rights protection and promotion for sex workers – Eastern region

On Friday 13th May 2022, UNESO held a regional stakeholders’ meeting in Soroti district at Timisha Hotel.

Engaging key stakeholders for health and human rights promotion may shape and inform effective, inclusive, and favourable policies that promote and protect human rights for all.

Under the strengthening advocacy for health and human rights of sex workers project, UNESO hosted a regional dialogue meeting on health and human rights promotion of sex workers with the main purpose of creating a platform for district stakeholders and sex workers to discuss, strategize on promoting health and human rights among sex workers in the district.

It was such a pleasure for sex workers leaders from the Eastern region to have and engage with key stakeholders from Soroti city. Among those present were:
– Deputy RCC – Ibaseret Josephine,
– DPC – ASP Kyasiimire Immaculate,
– Eastern Division HClll – Apech Annah, KP, and HIV focal persons,
– CDOs, LC l chairpersons, PWDs councillors, representatives of CSOs, religious leaders, and journalists.

The sex workers had the honour to share their experiences in the sex worker industry.

Some of the identified issues that affect sex workers in the region were:

  1. Limited access to STI treatment and PrEP due to the stigma associated with accessing the service but also lack of the STI drugs in the facilities “a person is given only a single dose and told to go and buy other medicines which are expensive, even at times, there is no stock of condoms and lubricants” said a sex worker.
  2. Increased sexual abuse, “I know no one among us, sex workers who have never been raped, maybe those who decide to keep quiet, we are raped every time and mostly by police officers during police arrests” a sex worker shared.
  3. Lack of safe space for sex workers; there is no DIC in Soroti district.
  4. Lack of confidentiality among health care providers, they disclose the client’s health status without consent.
  5. Lack of intensive counselling during HIV testing services. So people are not prepared for the testing results.

The meeting brainstormed on some of the strategies and interventions that both sex workers and key stakeholders can engage in to protect and promote human rights for all as follows:

The Soroti deputy RCC, Ms Josephine, thanked UNESO for organizing such a great meeting as she expressed that it was her first time ever to engage in such a meeting and more so dining with sex workers to discuss important issues and interesting topics, though some stories are touching and others are just normal, as she said:

“As a woman, I have a soft spot for women and I know there is a story behind whatever a woman does, so that’s why I can’t judge for whatever a woman does, but just give a listening ear and give advice where necessary”.

She applauded sex workers for the courage and confidence they have to speak out and advocate for their human rights and recommended they continue speaking and not shy away from fighting the harassment interfaced. she pledged that her office is always open to support in addressing all forms of the injustices that happen among sex workers as she said, “I don’t agree and believe in discrimination of sex workers because everyone is a candidate of sex work but only that it is done differently, there is indoor and outdoor sex, even the married people are candidates because without fulfilling the conjugal rights, there is no peace at home.”

She recommended the following:

  1. Sex workers have additional skills that add value to their work as well as increase income because the times are not good for all businesses as the world is in after COVID-19 effects recovery. “Sex workers should not have sex work as the main business but a side/or alternative business”.
  2. Sex workers strategically position themselves by forming groups with acceptable groups names and liaising with community development offices to benefit from the women’s economic empowerment programs and emphasized that “the NRM government of Uganda is the only one that has recognized and given women freedom compared to the previous, so sex workers should tap into the opportunity for their benefit” and she pledged support on that.
  3. “Cultural norms and beliefs are the ones that make a community, though some may be harmful” and so she recommended sex workers accept and learn to co-exist than fight culture or religion.
    She concluded with “Sex workers ‘rights are human rights”.

Soroti DPC, ASP, Kyasiimre remarked that:
Human rights are not given or favoured but they are entitlements by the virtue that one is a human being, and emphasized that people must know their rights, though this is not the case because of limited awareness of human rights,

“I have been so much engaged in dialogues for protecting and promoting human rights of key populations, but such kind of engagements are limited to the central region and not yet scaled up in other regions and yet they are important”

and so on that note, she expressed gratitude for the fact that such dialogues have been extended in the Eastern region and so recommended UNESO to have such kinds of dialogues in all regions and/or districts of the country because stakeholder engagements are so important in influencing change in attitudes of people.

As a human rights defender and advocate, she pledged to be a good ambassador for the human rights needs of sex workers because she has been oriented about the stories of sex workers and why they are pushed into sex work and this has helped her to learn and change to become committed to protecting the rights of the most marginalized communities.

“Police is a very big institution with all kinds of people and there is nowhere in police training schools where they train police officers to go and mistreat or harass people but rather it’s a personal trait to act inhuman and start mistreating others”.

So in that case, she recommended sex workers never die in silence and fear to seek justice even if the police officer is the perpetrator of violence, there are standard police units where police officers are reported in case of violations and held responsible for their actions.

“Sex work is illegal but it is happening because it is hard to stop or put an end to sex work”

So, she argued sex workers to not always conflict with the law by committing other crimes, and avoid engaging in unlawful activities like murder, robbery and she asked sex workers to take good care of themselves, especially in the prevention of HIV because one is a sex worker when alive.

She recommended that:

  1. Sex workers become security conscious because sex workers normally work at night and it’s the same time when most crimes are committed. She asked sex workers to avoid working in dark and insecure places.
  2. Sex workers to stop child sexual abuse and harassment, “some sex workers go to work with their children, this is child sexual abuse, sex work should be confidential and private from children”.
  3. She informed that some sex workers are so abusive and forcefully call people to buy sex on the streets. She expressed that this act is abusive and so should stop immediately.

Other recommended interventions for collaboration were:

Sex workers should be open and disclose their sexual orientation when accessing health services, this helps in making a better medical prescription, but also easy access to health services,

“if I know that the person is a sex worker, I don’t make them wait in the long queues, because I know they will be stigmatized, so I call them privately and offer the service in time,” said one of the participants/ health worker.

Lobby for the DIC in Soroti to help in bringing health services nearer to sex workers.

There are sex workers living with disability, UNESO should consider engaging and mapping out sex workers with disabilities- different forms of disabilities- because they are there and have not been targeted for any interventions.

Branding and popularizing of sex workers in order to reduce sex work stigma, the Sex worker community in Uganda should identify and agree on a brand name referring to sex workers that is accepted and not stigmatizing.

“UNESO is a centre for information about sex workers in all their diversity”

So, stakeholders who wish to work and engage with sex workers in all districts of Uganda can reach out to UNESO for coordination.

Sex workers are everywhere and there is no district in Uganda that doesn’t have sex workers. UNESO should continue to map sex worker organizations and support them to grow and be able to advocate for their rights in their districts.

“Every day, there are people who join sex work and have no basic information about HIV prevention, so awareness creation on HIV prevention interventions must be continuous, plus they are new developments on HIV and so sex workers as key players in HIV prevention response must be highly considered and engaged in programming because “No one is safe until we are all safe,” Daisy said.

Health workers were recommended to stop judging sex workers, stop discrimination, give support where it is due, and stop discrimination against sex workers living with HIV because no one ever intends to get infected.

“It is unfortunate that some health workers are still discriminating against sex workers because, at this point in time, every health worker must know the key drivers of HIV and this should be enough to justify the need to support SRHR promotion and HIV prevention among sex workers,” said the CDO.

Sex worker groups in Soroti to strengthen their collaboration with district local government offices like DHO, CDO, and others for easy access to social and health services.

Need for engagement meetings between sex workers, and religious and cultural leaders to learn and agree on how to co-exist.

The meeting was such an engagement that both sex workers and other stakeholders appreciated each other’s efforts and forge a way forward for continued collaborations to make the world a better place for everyone to live and enjoy their human rights. Sex workers were appreciated for coming up to speak and fight for their rights and stakeholders were appreciated for giving a listening ear and making pledges to improve health and human rights protection and promotion service delivery.

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