The Observer (Kampala)

19 January 2014

Uganda: Why Ugandan, Kenyan Sex Workers Are At War

The world has long been fighting a war against female genital mutilation of young women, with little success.

But as Pius Opae Papa reports, some women from Uganda appear to be enjoying controversial advantages because they escaped the circumcision knife as girls.

In the most unlikely place, Kenyan tribes' insistence on cultural practices is preventing its women from competing in the world's oldest profession - prostitution. Kenya's Kalenjin and Bukusu tribes practice female genital mutilation (FGM), while in Uganda it is being vigorously fought among the Sabiny of Kapchorwa.

Consequently, in the border town of Malaba, truck drivers are choosing Ugandan women over their Kenyan counterparts as sexual partners. They are now smuggling Ugandan women to the Kenyan side, or crossing the border to hunt for the Ugandan sex workers. Bashir Kamudu, a truck driver, insists that Kalenjin and Bukusu sex workers, who are readily available on the Kenyan side of Malaba, are exceptionally attractive but boring in bed. Kamudu blames FGM for his preference of Ugandan women.

Yusuf Omondi, another truck driver, agrees with Kamudu; but he adds that not only have Kenyan sex workers been tampered with by illiterate village 'surgeons', they are also too expensive. Kenyan prostitutes charge between KShs 300 (Ushs 8,000) and Kshs 1,000 (about UShs 28,000) per hour, compared to their Ugandan counterparts who charge between Ushs 2,000 and Shs 5,000 for same duration.

Apart from not practising FGM, in which the labia are cut off, Ugandan women are also known to elongate the labia, a matter that is thought to make them more attractive to their sexual partners. Allen, a 28-year-old Ugandan sex worker, who has practised her trade in Malaba for 11 years, agrees that her compatriots are in high demand, compared to Kenyan women.

"It's not our problem that their own men and truck drivers are abandoning them and choose to look for us," says Allen.

Allen sometimes earns up to Shs 50,000 a night, and sometimes up to Shs 500,000 - when dollar-paying Somali truck drivers flood the area. Because of the fierce 'international' competition, however, Ugandan sex workers have to hide from Kenyan rivals, by pretending to be clearing agents, in order to provide their services on the Kenyan side of the border.

It is estimated that there are over 500 sex workers camped in Malaba earning an average living through the night business of prostitution. They service the hundreds of truck drivers using the customs point.

Medical explanation

A gynaecologist, Dr Pauline Nassolo, agrees with the Kenyan men that mutilated women may be a turn-off for men during sexual intercourse, because the organs of sexual stimulation are cut off during circumcision.

Mutilated women, she says, are also colder. She adds that mutilated women rarely enjoy sex, which may explain why some men find them boring.

Both Uganda and Kenya have ratified several international protocols against FGM. These include a December 2012 resolution by the United Nations General Assembly, declaring FGM an abuse of rights of women and a threat to the health of women and girls. UN figures from 2010 indicate that FGM is declining, although it still affects about 100 million to 140 million women and girls worldwide.

Illegal trade

Although prostitution is illegal in both Kenya and Uganda, there have been attempts by local authorities in Malaba to legalise the oldest profession. Authorities in Malaba-Kenya passed a bye-law in 2004, legalizing sex work and setting up a tax that prostitutes had to pay to operate there.

Commercial sex workers were required to pay KShs 9,000 (Shs 252,000) per year for a licence. However, the sex workers reneged on the deal, after some men in Malaba threatened a boycott, arguing that prostitutes had increased their charges. Malaba town chief John Ikileng then threatened to close all the unlicensed sex shops in the town, if the sex workers refused to pay the annual operating tax.

However, the men then threatened to take legal action against Ikileng, arguing that the bye-law contravened the penal code and Constitution, and was also against the women's human rights. With his back against the wall, Ikileng succumbed and the law was scrapped from the law books.

Challenges

Since then, prostitution has faced challenges both for those practising it and those supposed to stop it. Apart from the harassment from her Kenyan competitors, Allen cites incessant police patrols at night as a hindrance to their business. She says the police extort a lot of money from them to allow them stay on the streets - fees sometimes collected in kind.

"The policemen patrolling at night sometimes come as clients but after offering them the services, they threaten to arrest us and close our operating zones, but there is nowhere we can report these cases because we fear to be arrested," Allen explains.

However, other sex workers, who declined to be named, said they hoped that if borders were removed, under the East African Community, they would be able to operate without harassment.

The sex workers also want prostitution legalized across the region, as they say they use it to look after their families.

Cause of cross-border prostitution

According to Charles Ojulo, a social worker and counsellor with North Star, an NGO rehabilitating former prostitutes and HIV/Aids patients in Malaba, endemic poverty is behind prostitution. He explains that several frustrated women see it as an easy way out of poverty.

Ojulo tells of several cases where a young girl's parents die, and the resulting desperation forces her into prostitution to earn a living.

He adds that some girls and women, who arrived at the border as victims of the violence that followed the 2007 elections in Kenya, have never returned home for fear of retribution and have turned to prostitution.

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