Fall 2023 Sex Worker Advocate Interviews

Macklean Interview



Kyomya Macklean is an advocate and human rights defender and coordinator for WONETHA, an non-governmental organization (NGO) that fights for human rights in Uganda, with special attention to sex workers’ rights. She researches and documents instances involving gender-based violence, lived experiences, and other personal stories. As a former sex worker, Ms. Macklean has the empathy and understanding to fight to address violence against sex workers and the stigma that surrounds them in Uganda. Along with her advocacy, Kyomya is also a devoted mother as well as being extremely successful in her work and advocacy. She is able to not only care for her family, but provide and pay expenses on her own. She encourages others to appreciate life without judgment, since everyone has their own stories.


Criminalization and Taboo

In our interview, Ms. Macklean discussed how taboo and criminalization made it harder for progress to be made for Ugandan sex workers. At one point, she describes meeting with a policymaker to make recommendations on how to better protect sex workers, only to be ignored and verbally abused at the meeting, due to the stigmatization of sex work. Ms. Macklean said that at the meeting the policymakers “were really so hard on [her], very abusive, very stigmatizing.” Research suggests that decriminalization of sex work can help break done taboos, but the taboo prevents it from becoming decriminalized, creating a vicious cycle (Armstrong 2019). This is specific to Ms. Macklean’s work because Uganda has harsh laws outlawing sex work, making it incredibly difficult for sex workers to receive the help they need.


Health and Vulnerability:

Sex workers are more or less vulnerable to violence depending on the kind of work they do. Ms. Macklean specifically talked about how she was more vulnerable because she was a street worker. Women who engage in sex work on the street are at higher risk of vulnerability, both to violence and disease. Those who engage in sex work on streets have less protection opposed to those who use brothels, creating environments that can create violence. One major problem is negotiation of condom usage, especially as Female Sex Workers in Sub-Saharan Africa have up to 20x higher rates of HIV than the average population (Scorgie, Chersich, Ntaganira et. al. 2012). Ms. Macklean’s work focuses on the safety of sex workers, especially by providing education to young sex workers.


Necessity and Peer Education:

In Ms. Macklean’s interview, she discussed how many sex workers (including herself) become sex workers because of a lack of other options. Ms. Macklean said that when she began, her intention was to “get money, get school fees, get youth hostel,” but as she got better at her job and made more, it was hard to quit, as she was now the breadwinner of her family. She discusses how she was taught about sex work by her peers, she was specifically taught by copying the more experienced girls. Whatever one woman was “doing, [she had] to do it” in order to help her practice. Currently, much of her work revolves around peer education and providing knowledge to sex workers. Studies show that peer education has the potential to decrease sexually transmitted infections (STIs) if done properly, making this work incredibly important to the safety of sex workers (Muhindo, Mujugira, Castelnuovo 2021).



Kyomya Macklean works with many different organizations to support sex worker’s rights and safety. She spoke of several, including; Alliance of Women Advocating for Change, SWAETF, American Jewish World Services, and the National Annual Sex Workers Dialogue.  These organizations helped with funding, grassroots organizing, and working in both rural and urban settings. She also spoke of the importance in petitioning and mobilizing human rights organizations, because she believes this to be a very effective method of completing work and securing necessities for people. Specifically when addressing a police officer she had encountered who would physically and sexually abuse women and sex workers, she mentioned that she and others were mobilizing different human rights organizations in order to arrest him or diminish his power. They also petitioned the parliament and the head of police to remove him and arrest him. She stated that sex work is a job that you can do safely if you know the rules and if there is a safety network for anyone involved in the work. For Ms. Macklean her rules, and recommendations for others creating rules for safety include being her own boss and choosing who she goes with, how much she charges, and creating her own terms and conditions.


Armstrong, L. (2019). Stigma, decriminalisation, and violence against street-based sex workers: Changing the narrative. Sexualities, 22(7-8), 1288-1308. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460718780216

Scorgie, F., Chersich, M.F., Ntaganira, I. et al. Socio-Demographic Characteristics and Behavioral Risk Factors of Female Sex Workers in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Systematic Review. AIDS Behav 16, 920–933 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10461-011-9985-z

Muhindo, Richard, Andrew Mujugira, Barbara Castelnuovo, Nelson K. Sewankambo, et. al. “Text message reminders and peer education increase HIV and Syphilis testing among female sex workers: a pilot quasi-experimental study in Uganda.” BMC Health Services Research 21, no. 1 (2021): NA. Gale Academic OneFile (accessed November 29, 2023). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A661436785/AONE?u=connc_main&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=af3c05a5.


Speaker 1 (00:00:05):

All right, so we just have some questions, the questions we sent you. So to start with, where are you from originally?


Speaker 2 (00:00:16):

I am Ugandan and I’ve been in Uganda all along. So I’ve been in Uganda.


Speaker 1 (00:00:26):

So you live in Uganda now as well.


Speaker 2 (00:00:30):



Speaker 3 (00:00:31):



Speaker 1 (00:00:33):

So what is your typical day in the life? Like a typical work day or what do you do in your spare time?


Speaker 2 (00:00:45):

My spare time or my routine? My daily routine?


Speaker 1 (00:00:50):



Speaker 2 (00:00:54):

Well I’ve grown now. I must say I’m a mother of two. Okay. Of three. One adopted son and I work in an office. But this office for sex workers, it’s for us sex workers and we run service delivery services. We do kind of research but not very formal research. We look at organic research whereby we document our stories: stories of change, stories of reality, lived experiences, stories of inspiration where maybe a sex worker has achieved something good or maybe it has been a challenge. It could be like gender-based violence. And we are looking at using such stories to impact change or to inform programming or fundraise in terms of resource mobilization. So I wake up early in the morning at around six. I have both my three kids. I’m going, they in boarding school. But then I have my young little son who is my sister’s son who is in a desk school.

So I prepare him. He goes to school by seven Ugandan time. And then I also leave to office and I reach in office, I open my computer, I say hello to my teams or my staff. And yeah, we resume work depending on what is on the agenda. It can be resource mobilization, it can be review of reports, it can be meetings, it can be anything. Basically what I have on the agenda and then the day goes up depending on what we have. Also on the agenda, sometimes we can live very late from office up to around maybe nine or 10. But also because sometimes the job is also very hectic. So we stay a little bit late in office trying to still work on other things. I have a team of 27 staff and the organization I’m working with is a grassroots network for female sex work related groups. So we have different offices or field offices in different regions across the country we have four offices, but in Kampala where I sit, I have around 17 staff that I coordinate.


Speaker 4 (00:03:24):

So how would you describe your work history? Has it always kind of been working in an office setting or has it kind of changed into that?


Speaker 2 (00:03:34):

It has. Yeah, it has been a journey, a gradual process. Personally, I started as a prostitute, but we rebranded, which we started as sex work way back in 2003. When I started, when I was working, I was in school but also working as a peer educator with an organization that was working for sex workers. So my role basically was mobile. I was living in a hostel, so my role was basically reaching out to different sex workers within the hostels in where we would operate and give them commodities. Of course by then we didn’t even have lubricants, but basically they were condoms. And also give share information around STIs where you can go in case of an STI, if a condom breaks, what can you do? How do you handle those emergencies cases around contraceptions, especially emergency care and also family planning generally and STI treatments and facilities that we were working with.

So from there, I was somehow promoted in this organization to start working as a spokesperson but also as a vice chairperson of the organization. So for around three years within these organizations, I interfaced with lot of, some of them were development partners, donors like hivos, global Fund for Human Rights. And among them, when I met with Hivos, I was identified to go for an exchange program in South Africa to meet with an organization called Sike Movement. So I was given, they funded me to go there for three months and before me. I think that’s where my story of change and leadership kind of started from. When I went to South Africa, they had organized a very huge conference whereby they were bringing female sex workers leaders across the South African, they called them provinces, province provinces, yes. So different sex work leaders were coming and they had different challenges, sharing experiences.

Some of them were very positive, some of them were having these pride stories about their work. And for us in Uganda, it was a taboo event. To talk about sex work, you have to do it very secretively. Even a colleague who knows, you have to be very much careful of what you share. It was really like you can’t sit in a group of two three and talk about it openly. It’ll be in a very secret behind the wall, behind the toilet in the bathroom, and you have to make sure nobody else is actually listening to. And here we’re looking at around a hundred female sex workers proudly talking about sex work is right. I mean sex work is work decre the experiences that somehow the clients treat them, what they have done. And it was really amazing. But also the organization that was hosting there was SWAETF, the sex workers advocacy task force, sex workers advocacy education, task force.

It was a very good organization in terms of sex work programming because they would do outreaches, which we were not doing in Uganda. They would do hotspot mapping, which we were not doing. And these were female sex workers trained as peer educators. So the peers would actually go into the hotspots, identify fellow sex workers, distribute commodities. I mean really you would see any other person and it was okay. And for me this was very, very inspiring but also very challenging. So the question was, is sex work illegal? Is it allowed, is it okay for me to operate here? They said, no, no, no. The police are. So the stories, the experiences they were sharing around the living environment of in terms of work, it was almost the same in Uganda. But then the question was how did you do it to make sure that you can even actually reach to the police.

You talk about organized meeting, you invite a police officer to come and talk to the sex workers. So it was a very inspiring experience for me. And when I got back, I told my boss what I had learned and what we need to start doing. By then, we are being funded by the American Jewish World Services and I told them that we can actually request AJWS to fund some of these activities. At least have just support groups where we can study, talk about some of these challenges. And also when you are two or three people who are quite empowered, we could also reach out to the police officers. But it was still hard. Of course, South Africa had moved far beyond us. Then we had also organized a meeting to meet with East African legislative assembler in Uganda. So when we went to meet with her, the condition was we do not want any journalist to take our photos to document our stories, wanted it to be a very closed meeting.

But we really wanted to meet with members of parliamentarian for them to hear our crisis and also our petition of what we really wanted the government to do for us. And they happened to lead that team. It was a very hard experience. I must say the people I was talking to who happened to be the legislators who I suspected knew, the knew at least would understand where I was coming from. They were really so hard on me, very abusive, very stigmatizing, very, someone would literally bless you and make you feel like you’re not even worth it to be human. Someone would say, you know what I’ve had of everything you’ve said, but unfortunately I would advise you to go and get served. You’re still young girl. So they wouldn’t see the good thing you tell someone. I got into sex work and for me it was because of education.

I’ve managed to do this, I’ve done this. Now I’m paying for, they’ll not see any good in what we were sharing. For example, my story. So it was a bit hard. Then when we got back and I tried to explain to my boss, he was also, we are not ready. Sex workers are so demanding, the population will be too much. The numbers will be too many and we want to be able to hand. I said, probably that’s what we need at this time. We need numbers and maybe when the numbers speak, people will listen to us. And I mean until when are we going to continue hiding? Whether we like or not, we must do it. So somehow he was not ready because he was a man, but also he had a family, he had children and some of us it was like we are being controlled in a container and we could just not continue.

So my suggestion to him was, you know what? I’m quitting. He said, no, you can’t, can’t leave. I said, I am because we can’t do this. I feel I’m betraying myself the movement, I assume that I’m representing, I was given this trip to go to South Africa. There is something that we can do differently from how we have been doing things. And by then we had also the feminist movement in Uganda, the Uganda feminist Forum, the women movement was quite very progressive but also very supportive of what we were doing. And they were very supportive in a way that that’s the time They developed a program called the African Women Leadership Initiative. They took us for trainings. They took us through the body mapping, why we need to appreciate ourselves and our bodies and how we are using our bodies to make money. But also creating a link between even professors who actually use their brain, which is actually their body, body positivity, body autonomy, dignity, appreciating us despite all the challenges that we go through.

So for us, for me, that was really a very powerful tool. I think when we got back from Nairobi, I told my boss, you know what, I think I’m ready. We don’t even need to discuss this, but I’m done. And we had a student who was from Lloyd, university of Sweden. She helped us to direct the resignation, which we did was supposed to do anyway, but we submitted in our reservation with my colleagues and the feminist was Solomon, who was the executive director of Akin Mamo Africa. By then. She said, you know what? You can actually start your own. And the things you’ve learned from the women movement from South Africa, it’s high time. Maybe you actually do it for yourselves. And though months though, we were very much scared, we didn’t know how we were going to start to write a proposal, a profile.

We didn’t because even the person we were working with, you would not see any documentation, any report, any proposal. Literally you were just there as a subject. Then by then also we had Professor Sylvia Tamal who had done some good research and hope she could do from Zimbabwe though she’s Ugandan. So they sat with us. So the question was what exactly do you want to do and why do you want to start your own? What is your inspiration? How are you going to do it? What do you want? So we started brainstorming. So they were like those exact things that are things you need to start writing down instead of talking about them, just write them down. And from there you start something. And that’s something is what we call a profile. A profile is what identifies you as an individual but also as an institution. So we started an organization called was a women human rights advocacy.

Women, yeah, women’s organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy. And it did quite amazing to be honest. We started having a smaller group. We started doing outreaches. We reached out to different sex workers in the hotspots and the streets, and they were quite very much responding because everybody by then was like, we are tired of researchers who just come to use us as a subject. And sometimes even the things they are bringing on us, we don’t understand. You can’t question, nobody can even defend you, you don’t understand. But because sometimes we don’t have the money and they’re giving you these small monies, you end up actually accepting. So somehow that’s how we started organizing and when we started esa, we did what we called the chain of leadership. I started as the executive director and then five years down the road I had to move another sex worker to take over and the same chain of leadership.

That’s how it happened. So after one, I was supposed to transition, but then when I was still with the other organization, sorry, just to take you back, when I came back from South Africa, I had just finished my senior six. So he was again linked me to a program, to an institution which is supported by him or I think the Dutch government. And I did my diploma in social work and administration. So after that I left when I had a diploma, at least I was more better compared to how I was to support out run an organization. Then from esa, I also got a fellowship from Open Society, found Open Society, east Africa, and I did my bachelor’s from Cavendish University. And the whole idea was we’ve gotten a fellowship, how is it going to impact back to the community or to the movement of sex workers?

So in that, during my transition, I had given birth, I was into family and I had now children, but also I was supposed to actually pay back to the sex workers, but I was also working as a country, an advocacy fellow for Athena. It was a new project under the link up project. And we realized that in the districts where we’re not operating, the rural districts, sex workers were completely different. The setup, the experiences, violence was okay, it was normal. So all along what we had started for the previous day, it was very sharp. Advocacy was yes, on top of the game media, we were out there going to the TVs, doing a lot of work, but it was happening within the metropolitan and that is Kampala Mak, so the main city districts, but these other districts beyond the city completely. The social status, the stigma, discrimination, violence, gender-based violence, violence generally from society, it was normal and it was actually very rampant.

This is when we actually now thought of establishing the Alliance of Women Advocating for Change, which was a grassroots network targeting grassroots female sex workers in the rural and per urban settings. And this group basically would support sex work leaders to establish groups, support them to register, formalize with the district, and also engage in social cohesion meetings to break, to change the mindset of their leaders within their districts of operation. So basically that has been my journey. But I was working at the sex work on the street. I used to be very tiny, very tiny I must say, but right now I’ve put on some weight. Cause I remember some of when we started organizing some of the sex work on her, but for that one, she’s a street one, she sells to the white, she sells to this tycoon. So she doesn’t go through the same experience like we do. So the assumption was those in the hotspots are more at risk compared to those on the streets. But even us, those who are working on the streets, the experience was completely different because being picked by someone you don’t know and going with them to their place of choice, it was very hard and very dangerous compared to those who are in the hot spot. Yeah,


Speaker 1 (00:18:06):

Thank you. So you did go into this a little bit, but how did you originally become a sex worker advocate? What was that choice like?


Speaker 2 (00:18:16):

Yeah. Well, I happened to be from, I was born from a polygamous family. My dad was born alone and so he married around eight wives, but then my mom was the first wife, so she got married at 15 and I was the first child in the family. So life was a bit okay when they were still teenagers, but as they grew or we grew, somehow our dad started going out in far other districts to venture for green pastures. But the more he went then the more he was actually interfacing with different other women. So at some point of time he was not returning and I had just completed I think senior four and life became a bit hard. My mom had given birth to around seven kids and I was the first one. So we were living in a village in a very humble home.

Life became a bit hard and being that I was the only one who had studied, my other young ones, other siblings were really young, I had to start looking for a job. And indeed, I went to look for a job in town and everybody would ask for a qualification. All the offices I went to. So when I tried one tried to go to different offices, they were asking for these qualifications I could not have or provide one. A friend to my father who was working in an administration office offered to take me back to school. So I went back to school. That was senior five, and in the process, he didn’t give all the monies at once. So when I think towards the end of the term he gave the balance to my father. By then we didn’t have phones, so I think somehow my father used the money and he didn’t send this money to school.

So this friend of his got very disappointed and very pissed with him. When he came to visit, that was when I was in the city, he told me to go and get served because my family is not a very honest family. He gave the balance to my dad. My dad choose to eat the money so he can no longer continue supporting me. That was my turning point. We were in a public taxi. Taxis where in Uganda we have, we call what we call the, so that was the big, big taxi where people come to hold taxis to go to other districts. So that’s where we were and I was in the middle of the road. This guy was, my dad’s friend was in this taxi, and everybody really felt, for me it was like I was left in the middle of the road, to be honest, because I didn’t have any relative.

I was staying in a hostel. All I knew was my hostel and my school and it became so hard for life to move on. So when I got back to the hostel, I told one of my colleague that my roommate, we were staying in a room. We were about four and they were like, yeah, we should pray. But I told them, yes, can we pray, but how can a miracle happen with managers drop from heaven? I had all these questions. After two, three days, one of my colleagues, again within the same hotel, she was called Jackie, she called me and said, you know what? I have a deal. Sometimes we go and hang out and we actually get kiba. Kiba is like something, a part-time job that you can do. So I asked them, what kind of job do you do? She said, no, we work in the bar and sometimes when you accept, I’ll give you the details, but do you think you want, are you willing to go to join us?

I said, well, I’m not very sure. Maybe if you take me then I’ll be able to appreciate Indeed they were working in a bar, but then they were also doing the strip dancing and in that, when I went, I had no option. So I was introduced to the supervisor, to the boss, and yeah, they looked at me, they gave me an interview. An interview was, would you do the strip dancing? I said, I’ve never, I can’t even say, Hey, then why are you even here? What are you doing? So my colleague judge stepped in. I said, no, no, no. She’s new and she’s a newcomer, but she’ll learn. She’s a quick learner so don’t worry. We’ll teach her. We shall mentor her. They gave me another lady, she was called big bouncer. Now that was the ver of the club. She would do it like go crazy on stage and make everybody, she was the queen in the house, and so she started, they told me, you have to stand here.

Whatever she’s doing, you have to do it and you’ll be the next one. Oh my god. It was not easy. But that’s how I joined or I started getting into sex work. I was told when you do this, when you please clients, they’ll either touch, then you’ll pay. Some of them can actually offer to take you. But the point was it was more of a controlled brothel. So if a client liked you, then they would pay to our manager, but the manager would pay you. And for me, for the whole senior six, senior five, that’s how I survived. But then because now I had also established the social network, we also started going out clubs with my colleagues. Yeah.


Speaker 4 (00:23:49):

Got it. So correct me if I’m wrong, but you got into sex work from the women in the hostel. They introduced you to it?


Speaker 2 (00:23:57):

Yes. My colleagues, not women, they were also teenagers. Yeah, very teenagers but who were living in a hostel, yes.


Speaker 4 (00:24:05):

Got it. So what would you say were any particular skills you’ve brought or learned from those experiences when it comes to your advocacy work


Speaker 2 (00:24:21):

Skills before maybe? I think for me the first thing is to appreciate how life is without, don’t never judge because all of us have a story. Each of us, someone may not be really into sex work, but everyone, because for me it was get-go, get money, get school fees, get hostel youth, and then that’s it and quit. But guess what I got and I started working, of course I paid, but then I looked at now back my brothers, my mom and I had to become the breadwinner now because trust me, I was earning some small monies and I started doing this work and I gained the self-care, confidence to negotiate and also to manipulate my clients. So somehow the communication skills I think is very important. Most times when sex work, if you do not have the communication skills, you cannot survive because most times when you don’t know how to communicate and probably sometimes you’ve used even the drugs, you get to be very aggressive and when you start getting aggressive, actually you are taking chances to be abused, abused or even be beaten up by a client, which was a bit more problematic and that is something that I learned.

I remember every time I would go out with a client, I’ll tell them, yeah, I just started. I’m new. Even when I had paid for three years, I’ll still tell someone I’m new. I’ve just started this and I’m looking for school fees. And because I had a small voice and also some of them would look at me like, really? Oh, sorry. So if I gave you money, what? Would you quit? And I said, yeah, of course I would quit. I would leave the business, but of course I wouldn’t. But for me, that was a tactic that I was given, that it is important for you not to be aggressive and try to become, especially when you are with a client, you don’t, especially in their hours, meaning that the room you are in, they paid for it, the hotel you’re in, they found it. So it was very, very important.

Then the other skill that I learned was working within a social network. Every time you choose to go with the client, make sure you have a friend, one or two that you text or you call that, yes, I went with this client. We are into this red car. It is this type of car and this is the number plate, and this is the person who is, maybe you can even go ahead if you have enough time to describe the person that you’re with, because sometimes within our group, people know sex workers know some of these clients. Some of the clients are really ruthless and bad and they just come into the street really cause harm. Some of them just practice rituals. So literally we would know and I wouldn’t allow that person to go, if someone is bad, I’ll just tell them, be careful, this person does A, B, C, D.

So that was important. Then the other thing was that I also learned was that we are all sex workers, but the level of vulnerability come, I mean a very diverse and very different. You’ll find a female sex worker who is okay when I say okay, she’s like, I can walk. I don’t have any physical disability. So even when I’m in danger, chances are high that I can actually escape. But a female sex worker who has got a disability or who is using drugs, they have high risks of actually getting violated, exploited, and even actually abused in that kind of relationship. But also not only the relationship from the clients, even within the system, most times a lot of things happen that do. They’re not favored. You find that some of us who are, well, okay, physically you’ve not used drugs, chances are high that you are able, you can be clean hygiene, you are smart, sober meaning you can communicate very well.

Then someone who is actually not sober, maybe they have taken drugs so they can insult a client or even the way they communicate among within us, you find that they’re a bit aggressive. So now that level of aggression pieces of other people and then it can actually stimulate another act that can actually cause harm. So even when we’re doing the work that we do, we’ve realized that it’s important for us to recognize these diversities, these uniqueness within us. Challenges of those who are sex workers, who are using, who are on art, they might not be able to stand the coldness on the street, especially if you’re working on the street, but they can work more better if they’re in a hotspot because especially if they’re taking their drugs at night, sometimes these drugs can somehow make you dizzy for the few minutes or an hour when you’ve just taken it. So you have to be very careful if you don’t have a close friend, sometimes you may actually get into trouble or maybe you can even miss out. Those who are in refugee settlement, they have a very different story. So for me, the work that we have done engaging in sex work and how we communicate, how we interface with clients, the challenge is generally each of us, we connect and relate to these challenges differently depending on our intersectionality issues. Yeah,


Speaker 1 (00:30:06):

Great. So right now, what type of sex workers do you work with and how would you describe the work that they do or the context for that work?


Speaker 2 (00:30:15):

How do we describe the work that they do


Speaker 1 (00:30:18):

And the context, locations or types of clients?


Speaker 2 (00:30:22):

Oh, okay. Yeah. We’re working with grassroots sex workers with multiple and intersecting vulnerabilities and it’s very intentional and deliberate. Like I’ve been explaining when you say we work with sex workers, generally, yeah, it is good, but we might be missing out a point in terms when it comes to quality impact of services that we are really delivering to this specific individual. If someone came to me and if you interface with me in 2018 and use Zoom the question and say, Cleen, what is your biggest success? Or what is this one female sex worker you have impacted and you feel that this story is powerful story of change. Probably I wouldn’t have any because for me it was general information and I felt everybody was actually benefiting and then I’ll tell you, yeah, they’ve access accessed services. Yeah, they have been able to engage in too far.

Now they can negotiate for better sex, for better pay. Yeah, they have been able to communicate with clients without being aggressive, like those general questions. Now when you ask me this question now, I’ll tell you first of all the story of check. We work with female sex workers with disability. We are working with female sex workers in refugee settings. We are working with female sex workers who are using and injecting drugs. Those ones are never patient, and even if you have your money that you are going to pay to give them transport, they’ll tell you, my dear, that is nothing for me. If I needed money, I know how to make the money in a very short time. I can have more than what you want to give me. So it’s not a big deal. But then you need to understand their mood, when to actually talk to them, how to get to know their lifestyle.

When do they, for example, do the injecting or do the sniffing? You understand their table, their daily time table. So then you are able then to connect with them and actually communicate and make an impact of what you want to give them. Then we have the edge y, a growing number. There is an influx of adolescents and young women who are also getting into sex work. Very young, 15, 17, 18, but remember the law in Uganda says 18 and above you are an adult, but here, McLean who is 40, is also on the same street with a girl who is 15. The chances of me getting this client are 99 point, I mean 0.9, but this girl are 99.9, but then the experience I have compared to her are completely different. Once this man says, oh, you’re so beautiful. I like your hair, I like your hips.

Oh, you grow. You have a nice beautiful body structure. She thinks the man actually loves her because her brain is still young. Now you cannot tell me that at the age of 40 because I know if you come to me, you start all that nonsense. My head will be telling me, do you have money? Do you have a wallet in your pocket? Can I pull? You get what I mean? So all these things are very important and even when we are actually passing all messages or information, we have different categories or support groups that we are going to talk about. Empower the peers and or expert clients or champions. Then talk to them. Let these champions take lead in the discussions. When they take discussion, they’re so much able to relate with the reality of their lifestyle and that for us has helped us so much to transform mindsets, but also to set and priority and set priority goals.

And also we look at, of course, female sex workers both are cutting across those on the streets, but mostly the biggest percentage. They’re coming from the hotspots. So for us, that’s what our category right now looks like and not forgetting the aging. We also have the aging. Aging meaning means that a female sex worker who is 55 or 60 and above, but also she’s still on the hotspot on the street and maybe she’s even using all these makeup or oil because she wants to look younger, but what does that mean or what does that do to her body? We are talking about issues of cancer, we are talking about hygiene. We are like a lot of things. So it’s important. However, we have realized that when you bring the aging to talk to the adolescents, it’s making a huge impact in changing mindset, but also in helping them to address our issues of STIs, even negotiating for better pay, negotiating for safer practices, things like that.


Speaker 4 (00:35:16):

Yeah. So you’ve gone in a little bit of detail about what your organization focuses on, but what would you say are the key areas of work that your organization is involved in?


Speaker 2 (00:35:29):

Yeah, like I said, we provide services. We run the drop-in centers. A drop-in center is a safe space whereby penny female sex worker will drop by come get counseling. Of course counseling is also provided through our Malika all free life, but also walk. We have a clinician, we have a counselor, we have a nurse, we have a drop, ABIC attendance or a drop-in center attendant who is a fellow sex worker and who will screen or assess you while you are in a place. Then you come either you want, maybe you experienced gender-based violence. You want to see a counselor first. You want maybe it’s physical harm that was afraid on you. Then immediately they’ll refer yourself to a clinician to help you with first aid or you’ve come to do testing. You have a client, you know your HIV status, but you have got a client who is negative and maybe this is now more or less of a discordant relationship and you think you really, really love this person one.

The best option is after they screen you, okay, can you come with this pattern of yours? How long have you been together and you engage with a counselor or you’ve come for a refill. A refill is when you have come. Maybe you know your status. You tested, you’ve been getting your ART services from the drop-in center, so maybe your medication has got finished or maybe you moved from another district. Now you’re in Kampala and you think your medication is getting finished in one or two days. You need to be helped to get a refill. So they help you to coordinate with your facility from where you are coming from or from the other district to ensure that as they work on your transition or transfers, then you actually get the narrative refill you want so that you don’t stop for maybe you are in, you wanted your negative, you were tested or you want to test you’re negative.

Then we have what we call prep. Or maybe you are negative, but let’s say you had unprotect unprotected sex. You come, we provide that service, or maybe you are pregnant or you suspect you’re not very sure. You don’t even remember when the last time you show your periods. And then the health worker, the clinician, the nurse will now talk to you, do the tests with you, and then the question would be, what do you want to do with this? Are you married? Do you want to keep the baby? Have you been looking for a baby? Is it an accident? You don’t want even to look at it. God forbid you want an apple. Apple is a term we use for removing, I don’t want to use the word terminating, but removing the unwanted blood from your footers, I mean from your uterus. So depending on how long it is normally when it’s first, second trimester, no first trimester, okay, first, second, yes, we can help you using the self-managed medicalized, then you are helped.

But when you’re beyond that, then of course we give you a referral. We map out different health facilities that again we work with that can support for those who are beyond that trimester. Sometimes maybe it’s cancer, you feel there is these burns, you have prolonged periods, you’re not sure what is happening. Could it be the side effects of your family planning that you’re using or do you want to have a family planning actually renewal or do you, that would be a new injection. Injection maybe after three months. Do you want to change? Depending on what you want, then you are directed or referred to the person responsible and all these services, we have them. Then we also run social economic activities, these skilling programs here. We do bags, we do jewelries, we do sandal like city paths, which are very African and also we sell them to different partner through the exemptions.

Sometimes we actually, every time we get visitors, they also availed. We also do pads, especially for adolescent girls. We do kettering depending on what is available and also we do serving and the serving. They’re not only at the drop-in center, but also we scaled this also to other groups, support groups within the community. We call them Chile. Chile is community health and livelihood enhancement groups. So the Chile, it’s community health, so it has the health component and then the livelihood component. And we started the Chile basically to support adherence, encourage disclosure, and also ensure that there is at least openness within the communities whereby people feel free sex workers feel free to share because you are just like me. You won’t laugh at me, so you are able to help me. But also then we had issues of people saying, I don’t have transport to go to the facility.

The queue is too long. I don’t have food or what to eat because I don’t have the drugs are giving me these side effects. They bring me a lot of appetite. So we thought when we start saving within ourselves and with our money that we are earning from sex work, because we say sex work is work, it is important to value that money. So we started serving some around 2018, I think 20 18, 20 17, and after the five years when we did an evaluation, we realized that actually sex workers had money to save around 600 million. So this for us was an inspiration. We said, okay, if sex workers can do that, why can’t we formalize this and have this harmonized? Just like the Indian sex workers have done it, they started the bank of their own. So last year we launched our bank, our SCO as well, and we had also made some good savings.

We managed to secure a very nice piece of land around 23 hectares, or I don’t know which decimals these are, but 23 acres is quite a huge piece of land that we can have a different projects running and female different sex workers have actually started utilizing that piece of land. And the reason we did that, we thought that when you look at our drop-in center, people will walk in and say, for me, I’m here. I’m pregnant, I don’t know where to go. I don’t want to talk to anybody, but I want to be here. Is it okay for you people to just give me a room? Yes. At the drop-in center, we have a safe resting room, but not for accommodation, for only those who have just walked in to temporarily or maybe it’s a drug user. She’s an injecting drug user who has walked in.

She says, I want to take bath. I want to eat something and drink and just rest in the evening. I leave. That space is there. But when people come in and then they want to stay for more day, 2, 3, 4 days, it becomes a very, very pragmatic. So we don’t have that space, but we realize especially effects workers who get through some problems, especially those with disability, they would actually come with that and we had to network with different partners. Some of them are willing to help. Some of them, they’re like, oh, those are spoiled people. They’ll spoil our other children. So we realized that we needed a whole or a space that could actually provide that conducive environment for so and so for someone to heal or get better. That’s how we ended up buying that piece of land. So basically, and then we do climate change brick making for those who want, instead of using charcoal or gas or electricity, we do those bricks and we sell them also to different people, but also to US staff and other sex workers as well. Then we also challenge, we do petitions, we do advocacy, we do conferences under the National Annual Sex Workers Dialogue. We do matches demonstrations though we’ve not done demonstrations for a long time, but we did a match this year where I was saying abortion is a healthcare issue and we organized with different police officers from the government and towards a very huge massive event that we held and we’re telling people that beyond criminalizing sex work is also important for us to appreciate that abortion is a bodily autonomy issue and beginning.


Speaker 1 (00:44:07):

So could you tell us a little bit more about the laws concerning sex work in Uganda?


Speaker 2 (00:44:12):

Yes, sex work is illegal, abortion is restrictive, but all these two items move together and we use them and we do them. We do sex work and we still tell the public sex work is work and they’ve accepted that they don’t approve, especially minister of Health, they don’t approve, but they know we exist. Now, when we come to the key populations, sex workers are slightly accepted and brought on the table to discuss to debate. But other key populations, especially sex workers who are friends, women sex workers who are male sex workers, those ones don’t even talk about it, but a female sex worker, oh yeah, yeah, it’s okay. We don’t understand the challenges, but the truth is sex work in whatever, four, it is actually illegal and it’s criminalized by law. We’ve not had scenarios or incidents where sex work has been sex workers have been arrested and they’re judged on sex work or prostitution.

Actually, sex work does not even exist in Uganda. Like the term sex work. It doesn’t exist. That’s the term that we use that we have reclaimed from the global debates and in Uganda for sex workers in the local language we are Ang means someone who does their own business. That’s their own thing, their own business. So Neko, it is Ang. So even public health specialists use it now to refer to sex workers. They’re no longer using the word malaria unless there are may be a few journalists who can still talk about that, but it’s no longer a big deal. We have accepted it. So even if you call me malaria, that’s your problem for me. Yeah, that’s who I am. If you choose to call me that, then we realize that the legal environment, of course, every day they keep changing or bringing new laws that keep incriminating, which is not even worth it anyway.

Not even important, I would say, because already the panel code is very clear that prostitution is illegal, though it is hard to prove to the public that, yeah, I phoned McLean with a client and they were exchanging money for sexual services. To have that evidence is not very easy. Then we have other laws that have also again been introduced in parliament through bills. Like for example, the anti homosexuality act directly, directly and indirectly affect equally sex workers as well, because I mean different sex workers can try different sexual styles. So equally they can also be targeted. But also when we are running drop-in centers somewhere in the Anti Homosexuality Act, it says, if you are found guilty of recruiting now, it does not clearly define what is recruiting or what forms of recruiting. Now, some of us who are working with those who are below 18 would not even mention as much as our drop-in center is available to serve, but also our drop-in center does not only serve the female sex workers, even the trans sex workers will come, even the LBQ, especially for the accessing self abortion services, even the MSM who actually working because they feel more safer.

Nobody’s going to get into their space with the female sex workers head. The other time you were our DIC, you are positive. I defended them from their clients that they’re saying. Then we have another law that was also enacted called the mini card, the Pornography Act. It also backed that whoever is found coating on a skimpy clause or skirt is equally, it is one way to actually convict you that you are a prostitute. But I mean by the laws, when you look at all the lawyers, most times they actually put on those short skirts. So it was passed, but then we have not had also people who have been convicted, but if you are unlucky, they can actually use it. Psychotropic act. Can you hear me?


Speaker 1 (00:48:37):

You froze for a minute.


Speaker 2 (00:48:40):

Yeah, sorry, someone was trying to call my phone and sorry. So anyway, so those are some of the laws that we have. Then we have other views, which are still the sexual princess bill, which is now introduced, trying to introduce the Swedish model whereby they say, okay, let us also criminalize the bias so that the demand can go down. Maybe sex workers is booming just because the demand is up. And many men were also very much supporting until we brought them on board and said, if you support this in parliament, you are equally going to be framed. So any person can actually blackmail you using this same law and blackmail you with mle. And I’ll not deny it. Why? Because I’ll know that you are one of the person that supported this bill. So we don’t know what will happen, but there is a possibility of ing this sexual offense bill.

So the environment traps me. It’s really, really hard. It’s hard that, first of all, it gives power to the religion, cultural leaders and society to stigmatize sex workers not to value what we do despite our contribution to the country’s economy, the responsibilities that sex workers per school fees to our children. We raise humble kids, but that positive bit has not yet been recognized, and we know that it is important that they should actually recognize our input and also our contribution to the country’s economy. For your students who are doing research, it would be important to propose some of those research the contribution of sex workers to the country’s economy. We equally pay all the taxes just like any other person who works in government. But basically that’s the legal environment that we operate in. Yeah.


Speaker 4 (00:50:32):

So can you think of any instances where you felt treated differently because you are a sex worker advocate?


Speaker 2 (00:50:41):

Where I felt so differently in a good way or a bad way?


Speaker 4 (00:50:49):

I guess in any way, if you’ve ever experienced advocating for sex work somewhere where it’s illegal, has anyone ever given you trouble or have you ever experienced any hardships in that sense?


Speaker 2 (00:51:04):

Yeah, I must say every day we do. But guess what? When you see now you have a very beautiful skin, very softy. But if you come to Uganda, your skin get burned by the sun here. Your skin somehow will be hardened. It’s true that even in schools where we take our children, I remember that was 20 20, 23, 20 21, I had to change my schools, my children, okay. My son from our school whereby they had seen me on TV advocating for the sex workers. And then one of the child told my son that your mother is a prostitute. And this was really painful. When he came back and told me, actually, he didn’t even use the word prostitute, but he used the local word mal mother, your mother is a prostitute. We saw her on tv. Now that did not leave me the same, to be honest. It was very painful and I didn’t even have the words to tell my son because the time was almost ending.

I chose to just change the school from where he was studying. Now in the school where they are now, I don’t even front myself. I have my little sister. She’s like, I do everything. But when they’re going, I request them to help me take these kids to school. The reason is because everybody knows cle really, and that’s what identifies her sex work. Sex work is work decre. Some people see me as a person who they see me as an agent of the devil. A white man’s agent being paid to recruit young girls into sex work. I mean, for me, and I’m used to that anyway, but as long as it doesn’t affect my children, I’m okay with it. Like I told you, I was married once, officially married. We do this traditional way we dance children. But when my partner realized and read the history, he could not stand it and he had to leave.

And I’m like, okay, I’m happy that at I have my kids. I don’t treat really, I don’t need need to be with you. If you can’t stand with me, this is me. For me, this advocacy work, activism of sex work, I think this is me. It’s what defines me. Literally, everybody knows me by that. I can say that. Yeah. And at some point of time, it’s really painful. One time we had a family crisis again in the village, and it was this family around was whereby my stepmother arguing with my mom and other children. And then my stepmother insulted my mom and she told her she never gave birth to prostitutes who sleep with dogs. And my mom was like, oh, okay. I mean, she’s a prostitute, but she has given me the best of a lifestyle that not even your husband would give us.

But for me, it didn’t leave me the same, to be honest. It was very, it pinched. It got me into my heart. It was like a sharp spear that was directly put into my heart. It was really painful. And I can say that when I used to go for Christmas, I would buy stuff, rice, and I give them as well, but at some point of time I was like, mm, that’s how I earn my money. Don’t give them anything from what I earn after all for them. They’re good and holy and all that. So yeah, there are scenarios where you really feel low, but even when you dress smartly in suit and someone mentions, makes a statement, when you are in an environment, you feel it. You feel it. But I mean, what can you do? I mean, for me, like I said, I got into sex work at 17, so I’ve grown into sex work and then from sex work into activism. So this is me. Yeah, yeah.


Speaker 1 (00:55:24):

Great. Have you ever had an instance with a member of law enforcement of being treated differently or being treated badly or a specific instance you could recall? Sorry. Have you ever had an instance with a member of law enforcement or a police officer working either as a sex worker or as an advocate that you could remember being treated differently or badly?


Speaker 2 (00:55:53):

Yes. Unfortunately, this man, this worst man, this worst police officer died and he died a very bad death. And it’s really bad to wish someone death. But he was a bad guy. He was really a very bad officer who would arrest sex workers and use his une, but is kind of fishers normally move with, and it’s like a tool. It’s Aon, it’s a tool. They can find someone, they hit you or they hit some of these joints and it’s really heavy. And he used to use it to insert it in two female parts to tell them that this is what they’re looking for. They never get satisfied, satisfied. So he would use it to harass them, to punish them. And I remember we had to do a huge petition around it and we went to, we mobilized different human rights organization and told them we cannot have this guy in the city, Finn Palace City.

Why? Because he has really gone overboard. If it’s illegal, let him arrest them, charge them according to the pen. But him taking powers into his hands and abusing the women like this, it is not acceptable. We even petitioned parliament and the best, the head of police, the head of metropolitan, we’ve invited us and we submitted our cases and of course we had the evidence, photos and all these. Cause some journalists had actually taken some photos and we were promised that this man was going to be transferred and he did. He was transferred and taken to a very far district, which is cab very far, where even sex workers could be there, but they can’t publicly come out the way it is in the city. And by the time he died, he was, how do they call it? He was short on the street before you’ve even reached home.

So for us it was like when went, to be honest, it’s really bad to wish someone death, but we were very happy that he died that bad and embarrassment dead despite that he was working for the state, which would’ve protected him. Yeah. The other things, I think, Carol, you asked me that the other time I’ve ever felt so bad last year. Last year. But one I stood, I wanted to stand as a member of parliament, a woman, a member of parliament, and when I went to contest, my opponent invited me and she told me the best option. I advised you to just not proceed. Do you know why? Because if we bring out the evidence of what you have been doing, trafficking children into sex work, my grand sex work, she really blackmailed me. And if my kids were not in the country or if I didn’t have children, I was ready back for that.

But she really got me on my nerves when she said, everybody, including your children and people will get to know who you are. And with politics, people can really play dirty games. And somehow I had to leave that. But I really wanted to stand out for the sex workers. But though we’ve been lobbying to see if government could at least give consider key populations for magina as marginalized or vulnerable groups could reorganize, if government can reorganize key populations, including sex workers among the marginalized communities and at least we have one post, that would be my dream. I would a hundred percent go for it after all because I would know that’s the constraints I’m standing for. Yeah.


Speaker 4 (00:59:47):

Awesome. So before we end today, what does sex work mean to you?


Speaker 2 (00:59:56):

For me, sex work means a job. It’s a job that one can actually do safely. If you know the rules, sex work, you can become a sex worker. You can do sex work, pay school fees for yourself, pay school fees for the children. You can do sex work and become someone that you really dream to be. The only challenge we’ve had as sex worker, that’s many of us because society has made us think that sex work is a data job. Sex work is not a legit professional job. Sex work is notworthy to associate to live with. But we realize that people who set their dreams and get into sex work can actually do amazing stuff. I can be sex worker and go to school. I mean, I know I have been supported when it came to my university level, but trust me, even if they had not supported me, I would have actually gone through that stage.

I would’ve gone for my degree, I would’ve gone my PhD, sorry, my public, my master’s. I’m doing my master’s right now and I’m paying for myself despite that. Yes, I’m bringing it with a salary. But for me, that was a dream. And that was a dream. And the reason why I still keep so ambitious is to tell the young generation that how you see sex work is what is going to be to you or that’s what will lead you. I did sex work. I built a very beautiful home for my mom. I’ve paid my young ones, university and all of them, they’re far better. And nobody among my young siblings can ever say that she was a sex worker. We hate her. No, I am a queen to them because I managed to, if you do sex work, you do it safely. The rule of that game, you avoid being intoxicating yourself, abusing or being very aggressive.

It is very possible that you can do it safe. And also you can set your own rule because you are a boss of, I’m a boss of myself whom I choose to go with. I decide how much I choose to charge inside. So it is very possible if you just master the job, have your rules and the terms and conditions you can actually choose even to have pimps, but then you decide to pay them, you can get the best out of it despite the legal environment. This will continue, but we know with time it’ll change. Yeah.


Speaker 1 (01:02:41):

Thank you so much for your time and for answering all of our questions.


Speaker 2 (01:02:46):

You’re most welcome. And thank you also for choosing to talk to us, to get to know, just to say that we are also thinking of creating, establishing a museum for the sex workers so that many students would want to read about the journey of the sex work movement, especially for Uganda, can actually research about it as well.


Speaker 1 (01:03:06):

Wow, that sounds incredible.


Speaker 2 (01:03:09):



Speaker 4 (01:03:10):

It was Very empowering hearing your story and just thank you so much for sharing.


Speaker 1 (01:03:14):

Yes, thank you so much,


Speaker 2 (01:03:15):

Thank you for listening to us. Okay, thank you so much. Have a great day. Bye.


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Sex/Work by Ariella Rotramel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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