Uganda softens stance on sex workers to ease HIV fight

Uganda softens stance on sex workers to ease HIV fight
Minister Esther Mbayo advises that RDCs operating in areas infiltrated by commercial sex work should open-up constructive engagement to ensure that sex workers utilize the available health services to control further spread of HIV while at the same time, adopting non-coercive approaches of seducing them out of the practice.

The Minister for the Presidency Esther Mbayo has issued new guidelines cautioning Residents District Commissioners against harassing commercial sex workers. She says that although sex work is illegal in Uganda, persecution of commercial sex workers impedes progress in the campaign to stop the spread of HIV.

According to an evidence review conducted in 2015, HIV prevalence among sex workers was estimated at 37 percent in 2015/16. It also estimated that sex workers and their clients accounted for 18 percent of new HIV infections in Uganda, a statistic traced to inconsistent condom use, driven by better pay for sex without a condom.

But despite the high exposure and infection rate, sex workers often avoid accessing health services, conceal their occupation from healthcare providers and less likely engage with HIV services, as a result of the criminalization of sex work in Uganda and social discrimination.

Now the Minister says that victimization of sex workers is worsening the HIV burden and eventually affecting the presidential first track initiative to end HIV/AIDs in Uganda by 2030.

Mbayo advises that RDC’s operating in areas infiltrated by commercial sex work should open-up constructive engagement to ensure that sex workers utilize the available health services to control further spread of HIV while at the same time, adopting non-coercive approaches of seducing them out of the practice.

She has instructed the RDCs to focus on reforming sex workers and integrate them into government’s welfare improvement programs as a way of providing for alternative sources of incomes to sustain themselves.

Last year, president Yoweri Museveni launched a multi-sectoral campaign dubbed the Presidential First-Track Initiative to End HIV/AIDs in Uganda by 2030, which is anchored on five key interventions to ensure that majority of the population have access to the related healthcare including prevention services.

The initiative spells out plans to tackle HIV through a five point plan to engage men in HIV prevention and close the tap on new infections particularly among adolescent girls and young women, Accelerate implementation of Test and Treat and attainment of 90-90-90 targets particularly among men and young people, consolidate progress on eliminating mother-to-child transmission of HIV;, ensure financial sustainability for the HIV response;,and ensuring institutional effectiveness for a well-coordinated multi-sectoral response.

Doctor Nelson Musooba, the acting Director General of the Uganda Aids Commission observes that commercial sex workers have remained one of the groups that bother the campaign. He, however, explains that targeting them with more friendly approaches will curtail the spread of the virus because they will also be covered with preventive interventions.

Musooba adds they also want the RDC’s to closely follow up on all other HIV prevention interventions rolled out by the government and implementing partners for purposes of yielding the preferred results.

Over the years, Uganda has made progress in the fight against HIV, registering significant reductions in new infections from 135,000 in 2010 to approximately 60,000 by 2016. New infections among children dropped from 26,000 in 2010 to 4000 in 2016. Of the 1.4 million people living with HIV, 1,041,000 people are enrolled in care and 980,954 on antiretroviral therapy.

Last year, Lyantonde Resident District Commissioner Suleiman Tiguragara Matojo launched an operation to arrest and prosecute all sex workers operating in the area. Sex work attracts a seven year jail sentence in Uganda upon conviction.

URN