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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.