Wise Advice for Activists from Ugandan Sex Workers

In time for International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, Hope Chigudu shares lessons learned from our sisters - activists, sex workers, feminists in Uganda...

They hate writing. They like music, dance and storytelling. They like skits and sports, so have, for example a skipping rope and balls. They're very imaginative, (comes with the trade) so include in the training, some exercises that stretch their imagination. They are quick to improvise and to vision. They also enjoy evening sessions just to share wild and juicy sexual experiences, tricks and gadgets. An evening for just dressing up and showing off what they are made of should also be included on the training menu. A room for crying comes in handy…tears, buckets of them. They don’t like too many topics during training, so within the course of a week, two or three are enough.

There must be a healer, a counselor, doctor, entrepreneur and lawyer - then the training has meaning for them and they can connect with it. Forget the language of human rights, its foreign and theoretical. Instead, share some empowerment strategies, negotiation skills, communication as a tool in the trade and self management. They are cool with that.
 
One surprise for me was the question: do we really understand the nature of sex work? Several were married and wore expensive wedding bands. One was even married to a minister of church. I asked her why she was pregnant – with her fifth child. She showed me her ring. ”It’s this thing,” she said.
 
Some families have accepted their daughters’ career choice. One of the younger ones came with her mother, a local government counselor, as a child-minder.
 
Stories were shared - stories of abuse by family members, stories of rape, stories that are not new to most of us. Mary shared her story of abuse. She was fourteen when she was raped. At an age when other girls are enjoying their teenage years, Mary was regularly abused, raped, beaten, tortured, and ridiculed. Now an adult, sex worker and activist with Wonetha[1] – the activism is what cuts through her pain and despair offering her a community, a greater sense of security and, some nuggets of hope.
 
“When I meet other women and share my experiences: the rape I experienced as a child and the child of rape I bore, who does not know her father; when I speak about the step-father that raped me, speak about everything that has happened to me, I feel a sense of relief, hope, inspiration, healing and change within me".
 
Nabirye describes Wonetha as a mouthpiece for women sex workers, some of whom don’t want to reveal their identity. She believes that sex work is a form of violence against women, that she is the victim of structural violence as a sex worker and the only way to end that violence is to legalize sex work. Until legalization happens, she will continue to carry a knife and some pepper in her bag.
 
During the workshop women shared tips for surviving violent men.
 
“Make him believe he has had great sex when, in actual fact, he has not penetrated you. That is the only way of ensuring that you can entertain ten men without ‘dying’. If a man is big, you hold him like this.” She demonstrates. “An
d never make a mistake of falling in love with a client. If you do, get out of the business.”
 
We were surprised that they get little money but make the most of it. ”If you ask people in my village for the home of the rich woman in the area, they will point at my house.”
 
“I have three rooms for rent and four pieces of land. I save little money per week and I have managed to buy myself a huge comfortable bed, the kind of bed that I dreamt about as a child. If you take a client home, never show him that you are poor, I have an electric stove, kettle and wonderful plates, my clients think I am expensive so they don’t shit on me.”
 
”I am sending three of my own children to school and all my siblings. They all know how I get the money. When I go home, they take care of me; they know I need moral support.”
 
”I am the only person in the community that everyone borrows from. When there is death, they don’t hold any meeting to arrange the funeral without me. They expect ideas and financial contribution. I do contribute. It’s important to appear to have money, you are respected.”
 
“You have to focus. Even if you eat poorly, you have to build something for yourself.”
 
“We have started a weekly group discussion with some of the Wonetha members on how to generate more money. Through the discussions, we are trying to fill the gaps in mainstream banking facilities that often do not cater for people like us, [people] without what they call stable jobs.”
 
Stories of constant threats and eviction from their office premises were also shared. The landlady, a human rights lawyer, wanted to evict Wonetha from its present premises. She was stopped by the elders in the area.
 
“Those are good women. They are taking care of their families. They have also reduced violence in the home. Instead of a man fighting with his wife for denying him sex, he visits a sex worker, goes home happy, satisfied and just cuddles the wife without making sexual demands.”
 
“For us old men who can’t get it up with our wives, we like these girls… they help us.” So the organization was saved from eviction.
 
The sex workers spent an evening sharing a mélange of experiences, fears, hopes and dreams. Dreams of owning a house with basic commodities like television, fridge, things that we take for granted. A young woman hopes to live in her house with her family, a happy family with children, a responsible father, and cousins - just the kind of home that children draw with crayons in their art class. In another story, a sex worker shares her hope of owning a huge mini-bus and using it to generate income. Another shares her wish to own some food business… supplying food, to address her long term needs.
 
They shared their experiences on the street and in brothels and related crimes like sexual violence, humiliation. They talked about travelling to Arab countries to sell sex, making money only to have it stolen. Many articulated their growing awareness that they are entitled to lives of freedom and will not tolerate crimes committed against them. They will continue to fight back. Margaret says that torture, violence, death and beatings are so much part of the women in the workshop and not even worth talking about. One of the participants was actually beaten and maimed. Some seem to have lost control in some areas but there is a tenacity to hang on.
 
In a candid session with a doctor about sexual health, questions poured as if from an uncontrollable water tap. They could not get enough of her wisdom and expertise.
 
And finally here is a message from our sisters!
 
“Hope, when you talk to your fellow women who sit in huge offices and ignore us, please tell them that sex workers are women, they are mothers. Some of us are married with wedding rings (they pointed to the rings). Sex workers can be enterprising and we can teach them a thing or two on investing for the future. How come they never invite us to their workshops as consultants?”

[1] WONETHA – Women's Organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy – is a sex worker organization established in 2008 in Uganda. See their website here: http://www.wonetha.4t.com/.