24 June 2014

Uganda: Prostitution - the Downside of UN Presence in Uganda

Prostitution is rampant in Entebbe with UN personnel providing much of the demand and young Nigerian girls being the supply. But the root cause remains youth unemployment.

I've been around Uganda, but there's no place like Entebbe. Perhaps because I call it home. People here have an easy approach to life. You hardly ever see suits hurrying to get to work. And unlike Kampala, we never have rush hours, traffic jams or smog. The hot weather and green wild gardens give you a special feeling. But I fear this article is not about my love affair with Entebbe.

The price of prosperity

The Regional Service Centre Entebbe (RSCE) of the United Nations has made life relatively better in Entebbe. Many foreigners have settled here and several sectors of our economy are now booming. Entebbe now has a modern mall, with another one under construction.

The number of hotels, restaurants and hangout joints are increasing rapidly, and the number of Forex bureaus has jumped from one to ten in just four years. But with UN personnel willing to pay thrice the value of an apartment, it's the real estate market that has prospered the most. All of these changes have translated into more income for residents.

However Entebbe is paying a large social price for this development. Many of these expatriates do not come with their families or wives. A large 'sexual vacuum' has been created and it's being filled by countless young girls and women.

No jobs

The first generation of prostitutes emerged around ten years ago, when French troops were stationed at the military base in Entebbe. The Four Turkeys pub became notorious for soldiers picking up young girls. Bridgette (not her real name) recalls the first time a French soldier gave her 50 euros to just go on a date. She was only 16 then, and has been a prostitute ever since.

A large number of the girls caught up in the sex trade attended school; some are even university graduates. Like so many educated people who dreamed of the good life as a reward for all their hard school work, they ended up disappointed. Entebbe has one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in Uganda.

Paying for sex in different ways

I have known Belinda (not her real name) since we were 15. She had a decent upbringing. Two years after her graduation, she had still not found decent work. So she was seduced. "It's not prostitution if I don't stand on the road and call out men," Belinda tells me at a sports and karaoke bar called Red Roosters that is popular with foreigners.

"I go out to the bar looking nice and a man falls for me - just like you would go to the mall or the beach to meet a girl. However, he has to take care of my needs because I am also taking care of his," says Belinda. Her 25-year-old boyfriend is in a similar economic situation as she is and can't take care of her.

She uses the rationale that everyone pays for sex eventually. "You are paying for sex if you buy gifts, dinners and outings. How is that different from me going out with this oga [nickname for West African boss]?" she says, hoping for me to empathise.

Before we finish our conversation, her 60-something date whisks her away to his white UN SUV. If this man has HIV and they have unprotected sex, her boyfriend will be at risk, too.

Demand and supply

A friend of mine works at a motel that accommodates UN personnel in transit to other bases. He was tasked by one of the guests to bring him a girl for the night. In comes Sarah (not her real name). She's a 23-year-old single mother who decided to do this "one job" for 50 dollars because her infant child had not had baby formula or milk in two days. Of course this is no excuse, but girls like Sarah do deserve some empathy.

Some people may blame increased prostitution on moral decay. Others blame it on the tourists and expats. But in some ways, I think it's just a case of demand and supply.

There is demand for sex and the supply is the girls; the demand has money and the supply has youth and beauty. So for a free market with little government regulation, this all is just the playing out of basic economics.

Fast approaching train

The government must address the core reasons why these girls are getting into the trade. I put the most blame on unemployment. But who are we kidding? There's more hope of Korean re-unification or Russia joining the EU, than the Ugandan government eradicating youth unemployment.

Despite the discovery of oil and one of the highest rates of economic growth in the world, there is gross corruption and misallocation of resources. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but it's the light of a fast approaching train.

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