War in Northern Uganda Pushed Girls Into Commercial Sex Trade, Many Struggle to Exit

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GULU, UGANDA – Gloria Acen, 23, smiles, exposing her black gums that contrast her well-set white teeth. Acen, a former prostitute, says fighters from the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, which began a two-decade insurgency in northern Uganda in the late 1980s, abducted her when she was 13. She says she eventually escaped but had to become a prostitute to support herself and her siblings.

“I was abducted by the Kony rebels in 2001,” she says, referring to LRA leader Joseph Kony. “I was taken up to Sudan. I lived with rebels for one year and six months, and then I escaped.”

When she returned to Gulu, a district in northern Uganda, she learned she was an orphan. Her father had died a few months after he divorced her mother when Acen was 8, and her mother died during her captivity. She joined her six siblings, who were living with her maternal aunt in Coope camp, a camp in Gulu for Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs, who were moved from their homes to temporary camps during the war. “Coope” means, “There are no men,” in Acholi, the language spoken by the majority of northern Ugandans, referring to the lack of men providing for their families there.

“When I came back, I was told my mother had died and my brothers and sisters were living with my auntie in the camp,” Acen says. “I had to join them.”

Acen says she and her siblings couldn’t live on their father’s land or even grow crops there because their paternal uncles said that their brother had divorced their mother before his death.

“My uncles on my father’s side refused to allow us to live on our father’s land or use the land to grow crops to provide us with food,” Acen says.

Relief agencies and the government provided some food rations to families in the camps, but Acen says it wasn’t always enough. Following peace talks that began in 2006, the government decided that all people should go back to their villages. Acen says she couldn’t get a job because she was forced to leave school during the war and was now seven years behind.

“I didn’t study much,” she says. “I couldn’t get a decent job. I used to dig in people’s gardens so that I can get food to feed our family members. Sometimes there was no work to do. We were just idle without anything to eat or to do. This became worse after [the] government told us to go back to our villages.”

Acen says that desperation forced her to become a prostitute in order to provide for her siblings since her aunt was also unemployed.

“Sometimes I would go to my auntie, and she had no money and I also had no money,” Acen says. “I got tired of that situation. I decided to accept to have sex with men in exchange for money.”

Acen says she earned between 5,000 shillings, $2 USD, and 20,000 shillings, $8.40 USD, for each man she had sex with, which enabled her to provide food and other basic requirements for her nuclear family. She carried out this trade in Coope Center, formerly the camp she and her family had stayed in that became a small trading center after people went back to their villages. But she says she preferred the men from Gulu, a town about 15 kilometers from Coope Center, because they could offer more money there.

Acen is not alone. The war forced many girls, especially those who were abducted by LRA fighters, to become prostitutes to support themselves and their families. Other businesses also benefit from the commercial sex trade here as owners and managers say the girls attract customers. The government and nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, have been working to rehabilitate the girls and teach them new skills to support themselves, but some return to the trade even after police arrest them.

The war in northern Uganda began after current President Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986. During the war, more than 1.6 million Ugandans were moved to overcrowded IDP camps and about 30,000 children were abducted, according to the United Nations.

The LRA terrorized anyone perceived to be sympathetic to the government by cutting off their hands, breasts, lips or ears and forcing children to be soldiers or the commanders’ sex slaves, according to Human Rights Watch, an international human rights organization. U.N. reports also document abuses by government troops who often violated IDPs’ human rights.

Acen’s story is not unique. In Coope Centre, there are about 20 young girls working as prostitutes so that they and their siblings can survive.

“Most of us are heads of families,” Acen says. “Our parents died, and it’s hard to provide for our families without jobs. Our parents died during the war.”

Stella Auma, 17, is also an orphan who was kidnapped during the LRA war for six months. She says she became a prostitute to support her 19-month-old baby.

“The father of my baby committed suicide,” she says. “He ran away from the village after he had been told to pay bride price for impregnating me. When I came back from school, I was told he committed suicide.”

She says she now lives with a paternal aunt and relies on prostitution to support her baby.

“I have to look for money to look after my baby,” she says. “I used to sell things in [the] market and dig for money, but I didn’t get enough.”

Auma says she earns between 2,000 shillings, 85 cents USD, and 5,000 shillings, $2 USD, for every man she has sex with. Sometimes the prostitutes can negotiate, but other times the men give them whatever they choose.

“Sometimes I don’t negotiate,” Auma says. “I accept whatever the man gives me because I want food for that particular day, then I wait for tomorrow.”

Obita Denis, program coordinator for the Gulu branch of Concerned Parents Association, CPA, an NGO, says there’s a correlation between the length of time the girls were abducted and their choice to become prostitutes.

“It’s those who were in captivity for about one year or less who engage in [the] commercial sex trade,” he says. “Those who were with the rebels for a longer period have children to look after, and they only associate with men who were with them in captivity.”

But Denis agrees that biting poverty was the main reason that pushed some formerly LRA fighter abductees into the commercial sex trade.

“They go back home, and a lot of them even have nowhere to go because their families were wiped out,” he says. “The extended families are too poor, too, and no one is willing to support them directly.”

Denis says prostitution was a natural choice for some women who had become accustomed to providing sex to soldiers in the Uganda People’s Defence Force, UPDF, Uganda’s armed forces, in exchange for money during the war.

“The activity was the commonest source of money during the war,” he says. “This is because UPDF soldiers were living in communities. They were not moving with their wives, so when their salaries would come, they would give it to the girls in the communities in exchange for sex.”

The Inter-Agency Internal Displacement Division of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported a breakdown of social order and traditional morals in the camps, thanks to the close proximity of the IDP population to soldiers, widespread idleness, lack of access to land, despondency, alcohol abuse among men and the poor conditions of camp life.

“Among the most significant [problems] is the high rate of child prostitution on the one hand and sexual abuse and rape by military personnel and other males in the camps on the other hand,” the report noted.

Some camps were more prone to commercial sex trade than others, Denis says.

“Pabbo camp was the largest camp in northern Uganda and now has the highest number of commercial sex workers,” Denis says.

In Pabbo, it was alleged that UPDF soldiers committed every reported rape and robbery and 75 percent of murders since 1998, according to U.N. reports.

Denis says that the eventual dismantlement of the camps made the girls even more vulnerable to the commercial sex trade.

“When the government decided to resettle all people who were in camps back to their homes, some of these girls had nowhere to go so they chose to stay in town by engaging in commercial sex,” Denis says.

Other businesses have benefited from this trade as well.

Buganda Pub, which provides restaurant, bar and lodging services in the center of Gulu town, is home to some of these former LRA abductees engaged in the commercial sex trade. The lodge also houses prostitutes who are from other regions of the country.

Charles Ochieng, the pub manager, says that the pub’s lodge accommodates about 20 to 30 commercial sex workers. They pay for rooms daily or pay monthly rent, he says.

“I one time asked one of these ladies why she was in prostitution, and she told me the men in her circles were poor and they could not afford to pay bride price or give her a decent lifestyle so she decided to join prostitution,” he says. “Some of them [are] married, and other[s] are not.”

Ochieng says that the Buganda Pub owners also profit from this trade because it attracts more male customers to their pub.

“We feel we are getting more customers when these girls are around,” he says. “Even new visitors in Gulu town come to Buganda Pub for accommodation because of [the] availability of commercial sex workers.”

The Ugandan government has directed the police to arrest these girls temporarily to discourage them from this practice. But Denis says it’s not a permanent solution.

“The government tries to arrest these commercial sex workers, but some of them get back after they have been release[d],” Denis says.

The government is also working with various NGOs in the region to try to rehabilitate the girls.

A group of mothers started CPA in 1996 following the abduction of 139 girls from St. Mary’s College in Aboke, a town in northern Uganda, by the LRA. It initially aimed to pressure the group for the girls’ release. It later developed into a full-fledged organization working for the reintegration of the children who were released or who escaped..

“After the child had come back, we would document the child’s details, their names, parents, villages where they came from, how long they had been captivity, and then we give them counselors,” Denis says. “When the children were ready to go home, we would dialogue with communities to ensure that children are properly settle[d] in these communities.”

Currently, the organization offers child protection, education, livelihood, and peace and reconciliation services. It has branches in all districts of the region affected by the LRA war.

The organization works on strengthening systems at the local level by training school management committees and local council leadership on child protection and responding to cases of child abuse. CPA also trains mediation committees on reconciliation and transitional justice approaches and helps communities to discuss cross-clan and interclan issues.

Agnes Ojera, program manager for Ugandan Humanist Effort to Save Women, UHESWO, an NGO based in Gulu, says the organization has also made great strides to rehabilitate these girls who are vulnerable to the commercial sex trade after the government sent all camp dwellers back to their villages.

“Some of these girls have no homes to go to because they were born in the camps,” she says. “Some don’t even have money to construct a hut to live in or basic necessities like saucepans, plates or beddings.”

Ojera says UHESWO gives the girls a place to live and teaches them a skill.

“We go to centers that were IDP camps and identify girls stranded in camps,” she says. “We identify them, interview them, and select the most vulnerable and help those. We train them in tailoring and give them sewing machines. Other[s] interested in business we give them start-up capital, rent for them a room in Gulu town for a year and train them in business management.”

She says they hope to eventually make the girls self-sufficient.

“We assume that [by the] end, the profits they get from the business will help them pay rent themselves,” Ojera says. “We also construct huts for them and buy them things they require in a home. For those trained in tailoring, we give them tailoring machines.”

The organization has resettled 45 girls into their villages since it started in 2009. It also partners with Marie Stopes International, an organization based in the United Kingdom that provides sexual and reproductive health care services around the world, to provide family planning and post-abortion care services for girls still involved in the commercial sex trade. It also partners with the local clinic created by the Legal AID Project, which provides legal assistance to vulnerable populations in Uganda, to offer legal services to the women in case of domestic violence or any other form of abuse.

Acen says she has been one of UHESWO’s beneficiaries. She started a retail business and eventually earned 400,000 shillings, $170 USD, to buy a 1.5-acre piece of land where her aunt and siblings currently live. She says she is now able to provide food and other necessities for her family. She has stopped selling her body for money and advises other girls to follow her example.

“I think other girls who are selling their bodies should look for other jobs,” Acen says. “Otherwise, that sex trade has many risks like acquiring HIV/AIDS.”