Some of you reading this article have asked me several times why of all places on earth I chose to live and work here. In my school days, most of my classmates never knew I came from Lyantonde because I didn’t want to be associated with a town popular for prostitutes and the fact that Uganda’s first HIV case was discovered few miles from here in 1982. As I grew up, I learnt to love and appreciate the good and bad things about the only place I call home; HIV/AIDS and prostitutes inclusive.
One night, a great friend, Ryan drove me back home on N25 Milwaukee, Wisconsin from a barbecue night out. “I want to ask you this son; I hope it won’t offend you… We have talked about so many things and set our goals for the future, I have realized you speak with a lot of energy and love for people living with HIV and your love for them, are you HIV positive? Hey Mjomba Ryan, I want to answer this question again here, I am not HIV positive and might not be soon (Insha Allah). I have work with people living with HIV/AIDS, shared food with them, meet them every day, and hug them; they are part of me. In March 2008, I founded ICOD Action Network help my community overcome the most pressing problems and with HIV/AIDS among youth and women top on the agenda.
Five years down the road, everyone at ICOD Action Network, donors, beneficiaries and community are happy for what we have achieved. Congratulations folks, but I think we won’t celebrate for long if we don’t design projects targeting prostitutes and directly work with them.
I have lived in Lyantonde for a very long time but I have never come so close to a prostitute as I did few days ago. It never came to my mind that I would hold hands or share a drink with my community’s most despised girls just because they are prostitutes. Any ways, I had good time with the girls I met. I actually met over 10 sisters (you call the prostitutes) but will share with you stories from only two.
Are you wondering why I chose to have time with prostitutes? I must clarify this: the first is that I have been raised, lived and worked in town popular for harboring the region’s most experienced prostitutes, so they are my sisters, I hold no prejudice against them and I believe none of these girls was born a prostitute. All the girls I met were forced into prostitution by socio-economic hardships and would stop if they had other means of earning a living. Finding a title for this article gave me a headache until I talked this particular girl Jam (not real name) who told me she entertains eight different men every day” Can this be true?
Jam hails from Isingiro district and the is the only girl in the family of 6.
Grabs a cold beer, stares at me and …. “What do you want to know? I am a prostitute, don’t you know that? I conceived the first time I slept with a man when I was in senior three. I dropped out of school and I went to Mbarara to work as a waitress. I hate all men…, but I don’t hate you since you have bought me beer” Jam says she is 19 and is the youngest of the girls at the bar where she is works. I think at 19, she would be in high school or in University. She goes on, “I stay here, this is my home and this is my house. When you come around and need me, just knock on my door”. Need you? My heart jerks… “I can serve eight different men in day. That’s why these girls hate me because I am better than them. They accuse me for using witchcraft to attract men. Can’t you see I am beautiful?” She looks good I must admit, and I think she shouldn’t be into prostitution. She tells me on a bad day, she gets five or three customers. Jam thinks she has no family anymore and belongs nowhere, her home and family is the room she rents and her customers.
Kayu (not real name) says she is 29, has five children, is HIV positive and tells me she is two months pregnant. She says she has been a prostitute since 17 because her family was poor and couldn’t afford school fees. I talked to Kay because I have seen her around for so long and she is regarded one of the most experienced girls in town. How do you entertain customers Kay? Stares at me too and says what I least expected. “When men come and they don’t want to use condoms, I let them do what they want…” But you are HIV positive? “True, but if a customer doesn’t want to use condoms and I don’t care. Do you think I bought HIV from a supermarket? I got it from a man like you, so I don’t care”. Like all the girls here, Kay’s only source of livelihood is prostitution and she says she can stop only if she gets a better job. Kay and other people living with HIV don’t have guaranteed supply of antiretroviral drugs from the local hospital.
Jam and Kayu are some of the many girls here and across the country forced by socio-economic challenges to join prostitution. During the joint annual review of the national HIV/AIDS strategic plan by the Uganda AIDS Commission, HIV/AIDS campaigners in Uganda called for an improvement in the coordination of anti-HIV/AIDS messages in order to avoid confusing the public on the efficacy of the different prevention strategies. Uncoordinated and sometimes confusing HIV/AIDS presentation / care massages have been blamed for the increase in HIV/AIDS prevalence in Uganda. It’s very sad that few of HIV/AIDS programming organization have come out with specific projects and messages targeting prostitutes yet they are blamed for increasing the rate of new infections in Uganda estimated at 530,000 every year. Jam , Kayu several others sisters need specific information and projects that will help them overcome stigma and discrimination in society. They also need special social, cultural and economic attention to overcome challenges, support their families and leave prostitution.