“We are stronger together” - peer educators in Uganda help women to exercise their rights
Uganda - “My name is Mirembe*. I am 32 and I have three children. I have been a sex worker for 13 years.”
Mirembe started sex work when she was working in a bar. Her boss would sometimes take Mirembe’s pay, forcing Mirembe to work only for food and accommodation. She didn’t have any knowledge of sexual health and sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms were unknown to her, and she got HIV from one of her customers.
Mirembe’s story is common. Fifty-six per cent of Ugandan women aged 15-49 have experienced physical violence at least once since the age of 15 (Demographic Health Survey 2016), and sex workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Due to negative stereotypes, even getting help from the police can be challenging.
“Before this project, we had no voice and we were taken as mere sex workers... WONETHA has taught us about our rights and how to protect ourselves better.” - Mirembe, sex worker
Mirembe recently took part in training with the Women’s Organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA), which works with female sex workers to improve their access to justice and health services. The organization is supported by the Spotlight Initiative and the United Nations Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund (WPHF). WONETHA educates women about sexual and reproductive health and rights, Ugandan laws and human rights.
When joining the project, Mirembe was chosen as one of 24 peer educators by her fellow sex workers. This means that she plays a key role in reaching out to other sex workers to form groups, share information, and that she connects them with health workers and the police. The peer educators also follow up on cases and provide mental support.
When the peer groups meet, they check in with each other and offer support and referrals if someone needs it. Some of them have even formed savings groups to generate other income.
“Before this project, we had no voice and we were taken as mere sex workers,” says Mirembe. “Now the ladies can come and speak for themselves. WONETHA has taught us about our rights and how to protect ourselves better.”
“We help each other out… If a client tries to be violent you can call for help and the others come and help. We are stronger together.”
The project has so far reached more than 2100 women directly, with more than 1500 sex workers receiving sexual and reproductive health services such as HIV testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections.
Additionally, more than 300 health workers, district administrators and local leaders have been trained on how to improve sex workers’ access to health services and justice.
By Laura Silver
*Name changed to protect privacy