Thursday, May 21 – Prostitutes Press for Aid in Food Blackmail and Win

By Aliker P’ Ocitti (Pen Name) GULU, UGANDA

It is the sixth week of the lockdown. The streets are empty at night, and all lodges and hotels are closed. The government of Uganda is running a curfew that begins at 7:00 pm till 6:30 am leaving no room for the oldest trade in the history of humankind, prostitution, to thrive in Gulu, a small town in Uganda.

On Wednesday, May 13, I received a call from Gulu’s greatest talk show host Stephen Balmoi to attend Teyat, a program on Radio Mega (102 FM), the most popular Saturday radio Talkshow in the district.

“David, I would be grateful to have you as a panelist in my show on Saturday. Do you have time?” asked Stephen, whose giggle could be heard from my side of the call.

“Sure, what are we discussing?” I politely asked, flashing the phone a concerned look.

“Gulu prostitutes have promised to release a name and shame list and photos of district leaders who are their clients if they are not given food aid.” It was a chilling and clear response from an enthusiastic Talk Show host ready to rock his show the next day.

“Why me? “I wondered. I was curious to know his thoughts on my previous articles in defense of the rights of prostitutes.

“You speak for them. Since I can not have any of them for my show, I thought I would offer you a platform to represent their views” Stephen cajoled me to be the face of prostitutes in my town on the biggest radio platform ever in the district.

Initially, my instincts preferred flight, but eventually, my mind guided to use the district’s biggest radio platform as an activist.

“It’s Ok. I will be there.” I said.

“Thanks,” he responded as he signed off.

Prostitution is illegal in Uganda, and when caught in the act, one is liable to imprisonment in jail.

However, the law also protects the rights of every citizen. For prostitution to happen, it takes two people, but why are men never arrested? Why can’t they benefit from freedom of expression? I asked myself. It’s these conversations in my mind that forced me to accept the task of representing them.

Here, they earn their living by lining up on streets in strategic places within metropolitan Gulu waiting for customers.

So what drives them into this business? Many people think they are looking for an easier way to get money.

But prostitution is not easy too. Have you imagined what they face in the experience of meeting every stranger in the dark? I wondered.

Most of them hire lodges to host their clients for a short time or the whole night.

They charge ranging from $2 to $10 per session or per night, depending on your negotiation.

But who benefits when these lodges are hired? The complex nature of the business is that while they permanently live in hiding because of the illegal nature of the business, the very same people to get them out of the business are benefiting as owners of the lodges and buying their services.

Like prostitution anywhere else, it has its push factor. Most of these girls are uneducated and unemployed, with no clear source of livelihood for themselves and their families.

With this ideas, I was convinced to represent them on the radio to speak of uncomfortable realities for the leaders to know that unless we look at them as victims of our broken society that doesn’t care for the poor, we will continue to have more girls and single mothers fending for their families by selling the only God-given product they have, even when it’s illegal. There is no difference between illegal prostitution and corruption of the same people who have been in prison as both are illegal.

During this lockdown, most businesses are closed, and everyone except for those working in designated essential areas is in quarantine.

Gulu’s streets are abandoned in the night, supervised by the military and police who are deployed to observe curfew.

The presidential directive is to have all hotels and lodges closed, including bars and saloons, which are all potential sources of livelihood for the prostitutes.

In an effort to fend for their families, prostitutes have warned through emissaries and social media that they will publish a list of district leaders who are their clients if they are not given food aid like any to their vulnerable groups.

In view of the fact that most Western countries who formed the bulk of countries and nationals who donate to Uganda but have been grossly affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19), it was prudent that Uganda relied on its own citizens and their businesses for survival. 

It marked the new normal for Uganda in terms of sourcing for food aid to replace what they would have received from World Food Programs (WFP).

Gulu District Covid19 Taskforce is a decentralized branch of Uganda National Covid19 Taskforce mandated to mobilize resources, food aid and distribute it to vulnerable members of its community.

The District Covid19 Taskforce is headed by the Resident District Commissioners (RDC), who represent the President in the district. The Chairman Local Council 5 of the District is in charge of fundraising, and the District Police Commander (DPC) is in charge of security in the district.

While the National Taskforce has promised to send some food supplies and funding to the district, they had not received any by the time of publishing this article. This forced the district leadership to mobilize its own community members to contribute generously to support vulnerable members of the district.

The local donors were given the privilege to determine who could be beneficiaries of the donations they have made.

Gulu District Covid19 Taskforce first receives all donations from the public and stores it then plans on how the food aid will be distributed as agreed with the donor.

The vulnerable members as designated by the National Taskforce include People With Disability (PWD), HIV/AIDS patients, Elderly, and the extremely poor, to mention but a few.

The contention then was: Are prostitutes considered vulnerable?

During the talk show, Stephen gave a background to the lockdown and how it has affected the different vulnerable groups. 

In his submission, he defined the different vulnerable groups who had received food aid and then raised the issue of prostitutes.

He then asked why Gulu district had donated food aid to the prostitutes and why they bowed down to pressure from the blackmail.

Gulu Chairman Hon. OJARA Mapenduzi argued that every donor was granted permission to decide who they wanted their donations to go to, and the taskforce delivered it with respect to the recommendation of the donor.

In this case, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) had particularly requested that the prostitutes be given food they had donated, and the taskforce obliged.

This caused a lot of online protests from Gulu residents for prioritizing prostitutes over than any other group of vulnerable people.

Their argument was that this was akin to legalizing prostitution, yet it was a criminal offense.

Amuru District Chairman Lakony Micheal strongly disagreed on giving food aid to the prostitutes and ordered that no prostitute comes to his office since he won’t listen to them.

He even asked any NGO intending to donate to prostitutes never to reach his district.

This, in itself, was a big difference in approach to the same problem within the same region. Yet both districts received prostitutes from each district, and there was no need to live in denial whether there were prostitutes in Amuru districts.

Already, with the voluntary registration of prostitutes, there were clear indicators of prostitutes from the Amuru district.

A few weeks ago, they had protested being held in quarantine beyond the required days after they came in contact with sick lorry drivers.

Lakony argued that traditionally, prostitution was not accepted and urged the prostitutes to get back to their families in their villages to receive any government aid. 

In his analogy on radio, he argued that he didn’t see anyone who could carry 100kgs in reference to a man’s weight as vulnerable. He also suggested that they should be arrested and prosecuted.

I informed the panelists that even if you arrest and prosecute them, they will still be receiving the same free food.

I argued that Prostitution most times is seen as a victimless offense; hence no one wants to identify with them.

In my argument, I asserted that most of these prostitutes met the poverty status or health status (HIV/AIDS) requirement of vulnerability since they are on drugs that required a proper diet less the drug failed, and they died.

In any case, their children who need the food most and who depended on their parent’s prostitution also need food hence no reason to deny them. Therefore they must be donated food.

Kilama, a leading lawyer in town, argued that in the Penal Code Act contained in S.136 to 139 provides for prostitution as an offense against morality, and it covers a broader area than that contained in the former laws.

 The Penal Code Act criminalizes various activities related to sex work, including prostitution; living on the earnings of prostitution; aiding and abetting prostitution, and operating brothels. 

In recent years, a number of laws, beyond criminal provisions, have been enacted, which impact upon the rights of sex workers.

A caller into the studio asked, what would Jesus do if he were here today? This was a direct call to the religious and spiritual leaders to walk in Jesus’ footsteps to heal the body and soul instead of condemning the prostitutes and not the vice.

In this argument, the caller preferred donating food to the prostitutes and suggested the focus be put in the redemption of their body and soul.

At the end of the talk show, it was a personal decision whether to defend the prostitutes and offer them food or pursue a traditional approach and deny them food aid.

Otherwise, the prostitutes in Gulu received coupons and continued to receive food from the District Taskforce.

As we walked out, it was clear that running an urban municipality required universal knowledge and more difficult, but running a local rural constituency could be as easy as using folklore wisdom in the names of tradition even if it was not a wise decision and the leaders get away with it.

I moved out of the studio to move into another radio program that had sent me a message to appear in the afternoon program to speak about the plight of prostitutes during the lockdown.

It had become part of my life as the face of prostitutes in my small town as an activist.

My day ended with a meeting with concerned groups who intend to join the cause to protect the rights of prostitutes and offer intervention on how to get them out of life on the streets through rehabilitation and reskilling training programs.

Our voices had been heard. It was eventually possible to publicly talk about prostitutes unlike a few months ago when such issues where never mentioned in public leave alone for their rights to be debated on the radio.

The End Prostitution Project continues.

The author is a Gulu based Blogger. Email: mdaliker@gmail.com