Ugandan COVID-19 Response Exacerbates Violation of Sex Workers’ Socio-Economic Rights

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Ugandan COVID-19 Response Exacerbates Violation of Sex Workers’ Socio-Economic Rights

Criminalisation of sex work in Uganda has increased violence against sex workers and left them vulnerable to violation of their socio-economic rights to work, food, housing and health services during the enforcement of public health measures to counter the spread of COVID-19.

You wake up in the morning and the children are crying that they are hungry, they didn’t have supper. Do you think you will just sit at home? You have to take risks and leave the rest to God. Do you think we worry about catching COVID-19?
Mirembe (A Ugandan sex worker)


For sex workers in Uganda, the pre-COVID-19 era was anything but utopian owing to the legal framework criminalising sex work. However, the spread of the pandemic worsened their already precarious situation and they were left extremely vulnerable to gross violations of their socio-economic rights. In what follows I interrogate the ways in which the official response to COVID-19 in Uganda has exacerbated the vulnerabilities of sex workers with a focus on their rights to health, work, food and adequate housing. These rights are often indicators of individuals’ quality of life, and the context of the ongoing pandemic makes it important to establish the ways in which they have been affected.

COVID-19 and sex work in Uganda
Uganda is party to many international instruments in which the rights to health, work, food and adequate housing are enshrined. These include the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Charter) and the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa. Moreover, the Constitution under the National Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy declares that the state shall ensure that all Ugandans enjoy rights, opportunities and access to health services, work, decent shelter and food security, among other amenities. Article 40 directs the Parliament to enact laws to provide for the right to work in satisfactory, safe and healthy conditions.

Nevertheless, not everyone benefits. Sex work, which is viewed as morally as religiously unacceptable, is criminalised under section 139 of the Penal Code Act. And in the particular context of COVID-19, this has a number of implications for the enjoyment of the rights guaranteed under the Constitution.

For instance, increased policing to enforce lockdown heightened the violence meted out on sex workers because state enforcers do not anticipate consequences for assaulting sex workers. A May 2020 press statement released by the Uganda Key Populations Consortium denounced raids, arrests, extortions and attacks by law enforcement officers on sex workers, barmaids and other vulnerable communities. Health measures that unfairly target sex workers and their clients have been a further problem. A Ministry of Health operation which focused on testing cargo transporters from neighbouring countries led to the arrest of more than 117 female sex workers, for whom truck drivers make up a large percentage of clients. By adopting health policies that unfairly target sex workers and their clients, the work environment is made unsafe and unhealthy, which violates the constitutional right to work in a safe and healthy environment.

The right to adequate housing contains a number of freedoms including family privacy, and protection against both forced eviction and arbitrary interference within one’s home. However, because Uganda has a poor social security system and no comprehensive laws on housing, sex workers who have been pushed out of business due to COVID-19 alleviation measures therefore cannot pay their rent. Furthermore, despite being forbidden to work due to lockdown, criminalisation means sex workers are denied government relief packages given to other vulnerable groups such as young people, women and persons with disabilities, thus violating their rights to food and housing. Lodge owners continue to demand rent from sex workers even as the client base has dwindled from the street. They are at continued risk of eviction and sometimes the landlords demand sex, extort or threaten to report them to authorities.

The pandemic has also had a negative effect on the right to health services. COVID-19 has overwhelmed hospitals and restricted access to health facilities, particularly those not considered a priority but some of which are crucial for sex workers. These include contraceptive provision, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases—PEP and HIV/AIDS testing services were especially limited during lockdown. According to the Executive Director of Alliance of Women Advocating for Change:

Women doing sex work and their families were already starving because local government officials have denied them food aid. HIV positive sex workers and their children are already struggling to get HIV treatment refills, PrEP, STI treatment and contraception because of poor government planning.

Overall, the government’s marginalisation of sex workers and failure to adopt a human rights-based approach to adequately deal with the issues caused by the pandemic has forced sex workers to choose between staying in and starving to death or going out to work and risking contracting COVID-19. ‘Do you think we worry about catching COVID-19? You have to take risks and leave the rest to God’ is the resultant ‘is the resultant attitude as sex workers seek to alleviate the immediate suffering caused by hunger, fear of eviction and failure to access antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), among other pressing problems. It is difficult to work towards stopping the spread of a virus that seems so detached from them when they are occupied by urgent ‘bread-and-butter’ welfare concerns.

Conclusion and way forward
While sex workers’ groups have mobilised to fundraise for colleagues, this is insufficient. Government intervention is required to develop tailor-made strategies to meet the socio-economic needs of sex workers. This can only be achieved through the adoption of a human rights-based approach that engages with the immediate needs of sex workers in the short term while also recognising the need to decriminalise sex work as a longer-term objective. This would ensure adequate legal protection of labour rights, access to health services, social security measures and food.

Looking to the longer term, Uganda’s ministry dedicated to disaster preparedness and management needs an increased response capacity, including a budget allocation to take into account sex workers’ needs during future pandemics.

And as the National Coordinator of the Uganda Network of Sex Worker Organisations points out, an inclusive tailor-made approach to handle sex workers’ needs is to everyone’s benefit:

When sex workers are empowered and their human rights are respected, they can help communities rapidly adopt protective measures. We have seen this with HIV, and this should be the approach to COVID-19.

Olum Lornah Afoyomungu

Written by Olum Lornah Afoyomungu

Olum Lornah Afoyomungu is undertaking the Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa at the University of Pretoria. She is committed to foregrounding African women’s voices in international law and highlighting how law reproduces the marginalisation of women. Her articles have appeared in Makerere Law Journal and Leaders’ Journal.

Cite as: Afoyomungu, Olum Lornah. "Ugandan COVID-19 Response Exacerbates Violation of Sex Workers’ Socio-Economic Rights", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 11 March 2021,


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