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Exploiting the police uniform

By Maya Prabhu

A story of abused authority and the victimised vulnerable

Helens* work environment is more dangerous than most. On the night-time streets and alleyways of Kampala, her short skirts and revealing blouses flag down cruising clients, but also attract unwanted, and all too frequently violent, attention. Crucially, Helen is made vulnerable by the fact that her work alienates her from the law: she is a sex worker, and in Uganda, prostitution is illegal.

In theory, this makes her, and the thousands of other sex workers in the country, liable to arrest, trial, and even imprisonment.  Alienation from the law is one thing: victimisation by officers of the law is another altogether, and victimisation seems to be what this group of people has been taught to expect.

Last year alone, Helen recalls being coerced into sex seven times by a police officer: they say – if you dont have money, give me sex. In the office of Lady Mermaids Bureau (LMB), an association of sex workers which advocates for sex workers rights and protection, seven of Helens co-members nodded in unsurprised understanding, swapping stories of police abuse. In her time on the streets, Christine* recalls five separate occasions on which she was arrested and made to pay bribes to avoid the ordeals of forced sex and incarceration.

Jennifer Tushabe, a member of Wonetha, another Kampala-based sex workers association active in the advocacy for sex workers rights, says the multiple bribes she has had to pay have been as high as Shs 50,000.

Florence Kirabira, an officer with the Child and Family Protection Unit, explained that only female officers handle cases of sex workers.  She admits that there are exceptions, late at night, when only male officers are on patrol – but in these allegedly rare cases they bring suspects to policewomen for questioning. Kirabira says arrests usually result in a police-led dialogue about alternative career choices.

But Kirabira’s information is directly contradicted by the experiences of the women, and men, of Helen’s embattled professional community. Based on the stories of a number of Kampala sex workers, the practical reality is quite different from the official position of the police, and represents a damning indictment of the force.

Sanyu Hajarah Batte, Programme Manager and newly elected Executive Director of LMB, says she has been coerced into sexual intercourse five times by police officers during her three-year career as a sex worker in Kampala. In two of these cases, she demanded to be taken to the police station, where she felt sure that any case against her would falter. But her refusal to sexually bribe the arresting officer culminated, on both occasions, in being physically held down and raped by her uniformed assailant. She says “you cry, you cry, you go and wash yourself… but you have nothing to do about it.”

Hajarah’s courage in fighting for  her rights is exceptional. ‘You can’t!’ exclaimed the group of LMB members when asked whether they had ever denied an officer the demanded bribe. Experiences like Daisy Nakato’s explain their reaction. Daisy was hounded and ultimately arrested  by an officer whom she had repeatedly refused free sex. “He said why should I pay when we are the ones protecting you?” she remembers. She was incarcerated in a squalid Kabalagala police cell over a full weekend.

The following Monday, she was made to mop floors in her short skirt while an audience of policemen forbade her to cover her exposed body. Fortuitously, a former client and senior officer recognised her and arranged her release. She rejected his invitation to confront the arresting officer, who had neglected to charge her with a crime, afraid of provoking his anger.

Targeted Exploitation

Officer Kirabira says that in those exceptional cases when a sex worker is handled by a man, the officer will be part of a group of three or more, to prevent wayward policemen from secretly exploiting suspects. And the men, she said, avoid handling the women at all to avoid accusations of indecency.

When The Independent asked Hajarah to verify that this has been the procedure that she has observed in her years as a leader among sex workers in Kampala, she said she had rarely heard of female officers being present at arrests. Additionally, she commented that travelling in numbers hardly represents a precaution against indecent contact, since she knows women who have been ‘used’ by three policemen in a single encounter.

Officer Kirabira also claimed that, if a police officer were to commit such a violation of the law, he would commit it as a civilian, not as a representative of the Police Department.

But any offence committed by an officer in uniform, endowed with the authority that his uniform automatically confers to him, cannot be regarded as anything other than an abuse of police power. Macklean Kyomyo, head of Wonetha, says, “If the policeman didn’t have that uniform, we would fight him! I wouldn’t let any other man take advantage.”

It might be tempting to dismiss the stories of these women as nothing more than ‘the usual’ bribery, a sexual “kitu kidogo”: sex is currency in sex work. But an interview with Officer Kalulu, Public Relations Officer with the Kampala Metropolitan Police exposed the conduct of these police officers as going beyond bribery, as, in fact, targeted assault facilitated and disguised by the authority of a police uniform.

Officer Kalulu explained that the Kampala police no longer arrest people on the basis of the “idle and disorderly conduct” law. This is crucially significant, since “idle and disorderly” is the charge for which sex workers are nearly always arrested. This loosely defined charge is much easier to prove than prostitution. While the Kampala Metropolitan PRO was unable to provide The Independent with an exact date, he said that cases of “idle and disorderly” have not been opened for, “several years at least.” Moreover, he added that any police officer who brings in a suspect for violation of the law he refers to as, “an unfair colonial rule” will face investigation by the police’s Professional Standards Unit.

Members of LMB and Wonetha interviewed for this story have faced arrest for “idle and disorderly” behaviour as recently as February this year. None of the women interviewed who have been targeted in these recent arrests were brought to the police station: each of them bribed their way out with cash or sex. Based on Officer Kalulu’s statement, it would seem that none of the arresting officers in these cases had any intention of detaining or sending their victims to court, since such action would have resulted in their own investigation and the release of their “suspects”.

The police officers who have arrested suspected sex workers on the idle and disorderly charge within the last few years have clearly been targeting vulnerable people, knowing them to be unaware of police policy and their own rights, expecting them to be too intimidated not to yield to demands for cash or free sex.

It is impossible to discover statistics of this sort of violation of justice, since these events go unrecorded. But the dozen or so sex workers interviewed by The Independent consider this sort of behaviour commonplace.

After a recent Wonetha workshop, the BBC interviewed IGP Kayihura, who claimed ignorance, saying “it’s the first time I’m hearing these allegations against the police. Any sex worker facing harassment from the police should have reported the matter to me directly. As a policy, we don’t arrest sex workers.”

Macklean Kyomyo explained that police persecution of sex workers has not ended, merely “gone underground.” The majority of Ugandan sex workers don’t know their rights, she said, and for them, the current state of affairs might even be more dangerous: who will stand up for a population that is persecuted behind the veil of official policy?

Members of her organisation and of LMB are a minority: they are exposed to information about their rights as citizens and taught to be safer  – to work in bars, brothels and through mobile phones rather than on the streets. Information is the foundation of these associations’ efforts to empower Uganda’s sex workers.

Fighting Back 

Corruption and the abuse of power are not new themes in this magazine. But this is a story about more than corruption: this is a story about direct, person-to-person victimisation of a vulnerable group of individuals by people who wear the badge of government-endorsed authority.

But Kampala’s sex workers, led by LMB and Wonetha, are fighting back against their exploitation. Both associations have secured legal support from Platform for Labour Action (PLA), an alliance which has already lent the sex workers demands for just treatment enough force to yield tangible results. At the recent workshop, speaker Dr. Ben Twinomugisha, professor of Law at Makerere, encouraged his audience, You dont deserve the sympathy of policy makers, you are powerful!

Macklean, along with an increasing number of Uganda’s sex workers, is grasping the responsibility that comes with speaking out. She says, we have been quiet too long. We know the pressing priorities. If we let other people speak for us, they wont address the real issues.


names have been changed to protect the identies of some individuals

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