On Wednesday, 26 October 2016, Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) launched a report entitled ‘Legal Regulation of Sex Work in Uganda: Exploring the Current Trends and their Impact on the Human Rights of Sex Workers’.
The study, undertaken in collaboration with Women’s Organisation Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA), set out to critically assess the legal framework in which sex workers operate, in light of recent legislative developments. While the Penal Code Act criminalises various activities related to sex work including ‘prostitution’ and ‘aiding and abetting prostitution’; a number of laws beyond these criminal provisions have also been enacted in recent years which impact upon the rights of sex workers. These Acts include the Anti-Pornography Act 2014, the NGO Act 2016 and the HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Act 2014. A new Sexual Offences Bill with the prostitution offences largely as they are in the Penal Code has also been introduced in Parliament. The study furthermore aimed to explore the trends in the regulation of sex work in Uganda and to assess how the implementation of laws affecting sex workers implicate their human rights.
This study is generally qualitative in nature as it sought to investigate the impact of existing laws on the human rights of sex workers through in-depth stakeholder interviews and a thorough analysis of secondary data. The study was carried out in Makindye Division, one of the five administrative divisions of Kampala and a hub of sex work activity in Uganda.
The study finds that the provisions criminalising prostitution, living on the earnings of prostitution and operating a brothel are not enforced, but that other criminal provisions are used to arrest sex workers such as the provisions creating the offences of theft, ‘being a rogue and vagabond’ or ‘being idle and disorderly’ (sections 167 and 168 of the Penal Code Act) or certain provisions of the National Drug Policy and Authority Act, 2006. For male sex workers, offences on having carnal knowledge against the order of nature (section 145 of the Penal Code Act) is also used as a charge. The study finds that even though the prostitution laws are not being enforced, the arrest of sex workers under other provisions of law is largely fuelled by the fact that sex work is illegal in Uganda.
Female sex workers are often arrested in large groups simply for the purpose of extorting money from them. Male sex workers, on the other hand, do not suffer mass arrests but rather targeted arrests after being watched and followed for long periods of time. A particularly precarious situation was reported by transgender participants who had become ‘the public image of homosexuality’. Sex workers are often kept in custody beyond 48 hours when arrested. The sex workers who are arrested are usually paraded before the media. In Makindye Division, the media has replaced the law and the police as the most fearsome weapon against sex workers. Sex workers usually plead guilty to the offences with which they are charged due to pressure from managers and their handlers, fear of imprisonment and lack of legal representation.
The study also found that while many of the new laws affecting sex workers have not been put to the test, the mere presence of laws which affect sex work feeds into the stigma, oppression and human rights violations of sex workers. These rights violations include the right to liberty, equality and privacy as well as the right to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
On a positive note, the study also identified a trend of empowerment of sex workers through human rights education which has lead to a notable decrease of the number of arrests of sex workers in the Makindye Division. Sex workers are learning how to engage and interact with police and increasingly have the services of paralegals at their disposal. Instances have also been found where sex workers have instituted cases of police abuse at the Uganda Human Rights Commission and the Police Professional Standards Unit.
The report makes recommendations on specific actions required to bring Uganda’s legal framework affecting sex workers in conformity with human rights standards.