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Sex workers in east Africa rise against violence and prejudice

AlertNet, UK
April 13, 2010, LONDON - From dingy street corners in Uganda's capital to the United Nations' gleaming headquarters in New York, east African sex workers are standing up for their rights by challenging the political and social systems that discriminate against them.

Although prostitution is illegal in most of Africa, women in the trade are forming powerful movements, seeking protection through the courts and defying the law to make themselves heard.

One such woman is Kyoma Macklean, who over the past few years has found herself in courtrooms, in the Ugandan parliament and at a United Nations conference on women's rights. She is now heading a campaign to stop violence against sex workers after a prostitute was raped and brutally murdered in a town near Kampala last month.

"This girl was found stripped naked, raped and slaughtered like a chicken," Macklean told AlertNet by telephone from Kampala.

In rural areas in particular, sex workers are susceptible to discrimination, violence and sexually transmitted diseases because of the lack of education and greater intolerance, she says.

"If they find out a woman is a sex worker, they hang you like a cross, insert glass in your vagina and burn your heart to ash because they believe we symbolise immorality and are an abomination to mankind," said Macklean, who heads Women's Organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA).

By putting up posters with graphic images of the murdered sex worker around Kampala, Macklean's team aims to expose human rights violations by police and others - for example doctors reluctant to treat prostitutes - and ultimately decriminalise sex work.
Macklean says criminalisation of sex work is fuelling the HIV pandemic because it drives sex workers underground, creating an environment where clients can easily refuse to use condoms, rape and infect them.

Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 72 percent of AIDS-related deaths globally, with 1.4 million killed by the disease in 2008.

"AIDS education is extremely low because even those who are educated are scared and feel powerless to negotiate for safer sex," Macklean said.

In Kenya, prejudice against sex workers was highlighted after the murders of eight such women in the town of Thika near Nairobi made headlines in February. No suspect has yet been caught, according to local media. However, the sex workers who reported the murders were arrested for submitting false information and spreading rumours, activists say.

The prostitutes have challenged the charges with the help of the Center for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW), which documented sexual and other violence against women after 2007 elections in Kenya. A court hearing has been postponed for now but the organisation hopes it will be a landmark case revealing the discrimination, exploitation and violence suffered by prostitutes.

Sex workers in East Africa are also making their voices heard via the first book in the region that contains first-hand accounts of sex workers' experiences. Macklean's is the first story featured in the postcard-sized book released last month.

"The aim is to open people's eyes to see beyond the stereotype, to react to sex workers as human beings with complexities like everybody else," said Zawadi Nyong'o, a feminist activist and the author of the book entitled "When I dare to be powerful".

She said everyone should have the right to do what they want with their own bodies as sex work is a contract between two consenting adults, and should therefore be treated as any other business transaction.

While activists like Nyong'o and Macklean work to change attitudes towards prostitutes, a new website, due to go live by the end of the year, will also provide them with practical help.

Among its many services, the website called Tujilinde - meaning protecting or defending ourselves in Swahili - will allow sex workers to alert designated coordinators by SMS in case of arrest or human rights abuses and list recommended health centres and legal aid providers.

"In a case like (in) Thika, when there is a death or when you know for instance there is a bar where some guy hangs out all the time and he is known to be raping women, that also can be tracked and mapped and other sex workers (will) know to avoid that area," said Hakima Abbas, deputy director of Fahamu, a pan-African social justice organisation and collaborator on the project.

Activists hope that all these efforts will finally secure the human rights of sex workers who, as Nyong'o notes, are entitled to them "because they are human beings".

Source: AlertNet, UK