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Poverty pushes IDPs into sex trade


FOR a city dweller, Grace Acan is dressed in tatters but given that this kind of clothing is almost synonymous with every internally displaced person (IDP) in these two LRA-affected northern districts of Pader and Kitgum, the sight easily passes for normal.

Acan stretches her hand to give sh300 to the shopkeeper through thin metallic bars that separate the man from his poor clientele in the small Matidi village, about 30km from Kitgum town.

She immediately recites her long list of needs before settling on 'priorities: paraffin, soap and salt, as if she has just realised that her money could not afford her the others - sugar, maize flour, plus cooking oil. Nevertheless, you could see it was a painful prioritisation process.

In fine English, as if back-biting his customer, he tells the curious onlookers that 'it's normal for people in this area to demand many items with very little money. It is up to us, the shopkeepers, to appropriate commodities depending on the money they have.'

As the travellers try to digest the hard reality, Acan fastens the nose traps for the healthy-looking baby with trails of mucus, on her back, in preparation to attack the shopkeeper.

It is too much for the 'town dwellers' that are enjoying cold sodas courtesy of the 'cold water in a pot', that one Good Samaritan who says he is from Kampala, orders a full bar of soap, a bottle of paraffin and two packets of salt for Acan.

He even gives her sh1,000 to buy the baby a soda. She kneels down in a very humble gesture, almost bowing, to thank the gentleman, prompting the others to give her more coins.

Unknown is the fact that they have saved Acan from an immoral and dangerous act that most IDPs turn to when life's basics are persistently inaccessible-prostitution.

Unfortunately, the dreaded trade, like the tattered dress, is becoming synonymous with the LRA affected districts of northern Uganda. The insurgency lasted over 20 years, displacing over 1.8m people in northern Uganda. Kitgum and Pader are some of the districts struggling to recover.

Why blame the vice on poverty?

According to the UNHCR 2005 situational analysis, 77% of people in these two districts live below the poverty line. The relative peace in the area is now allowing gradual return of the IDP population to their original homes but over 900,000 remain in camps surviving on handouts and now the popular 'body trade' with uniformed men.

nonetheless, extreme poverty, high unemployment, poor provision of basic services, and gender inequality remain considerable challenges for the population.

"These conditions have forced vulnerable women and young girls into commercial sex with salaried uniformed men, usually UPDF soldiers to survive," says Grace Latigi, a United nations population fund (UNFPA) staff in Gulu.

This revelation cannot be more emphasised. Ruth Akello, a mother of two, explains that many women including herself survive through sex trade with soldiers and policemen.

"I started when I was 14 years old. It is how I even got these children whose real fathers I do not know because I slept with many men," she says with no trace of emotion.

One wonders whether she even loves the children."Of course, I love my kids. That is why I am stuck in prostitution. I have to take care of them," she says. however, Akello says she is not actively involved in 'business'. "I do it occasionally 'on order' from someone who will give me something. But 'business' is best at the end of the month when the soldiers get paid," she reveals.

"Unfortunately, it's also the time when our colleagues, who cross to Sudan come back. They also target the 'peak' times and competition is tight. Because of the high availability of girls, men tend to offer little money.

"Sometimes you have to painfully settle for unprotected sex because it fetches you more. The 'loaded' ones do not like condoms," Akello says.

Save for her confession, Akello looks like any other woman who could be mistaken to work in a shop or market. She has no make up and neither is she in a mini skirt, a common wear for prostitutes.

"We cannot afford those luxuries," she says laughing. "Most of us do prostitution to feed our children. Some of my colleagues are former abductees with children fathered by the LRA rebels. Others had parents killed in the war. We have all these mouths to feed yet we earn very little."

But how are they identified? "They know us," she giggles. "Our clients contact us on mobile phones. Some are regulars, others are referred by colleagues. You cannot afford to go 'full-blown' in a community where such a practice is abominable. Prostitutes are stigmatised here," she explains. A call cuts our interview short. Yes, it's a 'customer' who needs her services although it is only 10:00am.

A report, Refocusing and Prioritising HIV Programmes in Conflict and Post-conflict Settings, notes that conflicts lead to a breakdown of social norms, increasing the need for women and children to engage in transactional sex.

The report reccommends that HIV programmes target affected populations with interventions specific to the conflict, post-conflict and reconstruction stages.

Population Services International (PSI) is trying to address this by engaging commercial sex workers (CSW) in voluntary counselling and testing.

Sarah Mbabazi, the PSI's programme manager, says in collaboration with UNFPA, the organisation is implementing a project which targets CSWs, military and the youth.

The 2006 demographic health survey shows that knowledge of HIV prevention methods is lower among IDP women compared to their colleagues in stable parts of the country, with only 18% of youth using condoms during their last sexual encounter compared to the national average of 38%.

"The presence of uniformed personnel among vulnerable IDPs demands for HIV prevention services for both sex workers and their clients," she says.

Mbabazi adds that they train peer educators from the three groups to provide information on HIV prevention, provide mobile counselling and testing outreaches, family planning services, care and support services for sero - positive persons.

The project, launched in 2008, targets women who have sex for money, food, and other material benefits. Mbabazi says stigma and high mobility increases ignorance about sero status, risky sexual behaviour, and poor access to health services, the reason for the a high HIV prevalence rate of 8.2%. the national average is 6.4%.

A total of 20,471 people have had voluntary counselling and testing in the last six months, of which 1,415 are CSWs, 8,286 soldiers and 10,981 youth.

About 241 people have received STI treatment, 487 received family planning services while 182,836 condoms have been distributed. The programme will move to other districts with heavy presence of uniformed men in an effort to help the likes of Akello to regain hope and dignity.


All articles are republished on AEGIS by permission. Material may not be redistributed, posted to any other location, published or used for broadcast without written authorization from Managing Director/Editor-in-chief, The New Vision, P.O. Box 9815, Kampala - Uganda, Tel/fax: 256-41-235221, E-mail: 

Information in this article was accurate in April 28, 2009. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.