Sex Workers Living on the Edge in South Sudan

They have no access to health services, cannot freely do their work and they live in fear of arrest by police. This and insecurity in the country has forced sex workers to go underground or flee the country.

Early this month, the UN Human Rights Office and the UN Mission in South Sudan said raised concerns over brutal sexual violence committed with impunity especially by soldiers. According to the report, women and girls are whipped and clubbed.

According to activists, sex workers face double the violence because of cultural and religious beliefs. The UN Human Rights Office says that the high number of ‘idle’ young soldiers is one of the main reasons sex violence is on the rise.

“We fear going to hotspots because if they find us there they rape and physically abuse us. We cannot ask for money from them and we cannot report the cases,” says a sex worker based in Juba, where periodic crackdowns by the city council has pushed sex workers further to the edge.

The African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA) spoke to the leaders of Access For All on the dire situation of sex workers in South Sudan. Some of the leaders returned this year from exile in various countries in Africa.

The organisation, formed in 2016, advocates for the human and health rights of sex workers and the LGBT community in South Sudan.

How is the security situation? Has this this affected outreach, work and advocacy?

It is bad since sex workers cannot access health services at all. Sex workers are living in fears after the crackdown at the end of 2018, there was a crack down on sex workers in Juba by the city council.

More than 20 sex workers were arrested and charged with various crimes. Fear of arrest and/or police-led sexual and other physical violence forces sex workers to move around to avoid detection by authorities. This has affected outreach programs such as the ones we carry out because we fear being arrested and sentenced based on falsified charges such as undermining the government. There is also general misunderstanding of our work because government officials think we are against culture and religion.

In addition, police and other law enforcement officers often violate the human rights of sex workers. It is common for sex workers to be harassed, arrested or forced to give bribes for their freedom.

How common is abuse of sex workers by soldiers?

Over 134 women, including sex workers, have been sexually violated by the government army and allied forces from September to December last year 2018. In a statement, the UN said about 2,300 cases of sexual violence have been reported in South Sudan in the first half of 2018 and the vast majority of the victims were women and girls including sex workers.

How has the current political situation affected health service?

The current political uncertainty and crackdown on sex workers has left them vulnerable and exposed. Generally, life is hard for sex workers because they cannot seek health services from Government facilities for fear that they may be reported to authorities. We are also afraid of sexual violence by soldiers who have rampantly being raping sex workers and women in general without a being questioned. There are no drop-in centres to access basic facilities and commodities. Social and cultural isolation combined with stigma and discrimination further limits sex workers’ access to social and health services.

Does the government provide health services to sex workers?

No, the government of South Sudan does not provide health services to sex workers or any of the Key Populations. In 2016, the Ministry of Health shutdown the only project that was providing health services to the sex workers in Juba terming it a taboo to the cultures of South Sudanese people.

You have indicated that the government does not provide any services to sex workers and other Key Population, how does this population access vital services such as lubricants, ARVs for those who are HIV Positive?

Currently, our organisation collaborates with Intra Health to provided basic services. There was an international organisation that used to provide health services to sex works and other KPs in Juba, but the ministry of Health shutdown the project for contravening taboos and culture.

There is limited infrastructure and systems to provide HIV services in the country and low levels of investment in the HIV responses most NGOs and Humanitarian show less interest in provision of health services to KP.

What is the source of funding and support for sex worker and KP groups?

There are several donors, however, the resources are limited. The security situation makes it a challenge for sex workers and KP groups to be well organised hence they lack capacity to mobilise resources and support

How has criminalisation affected sex work?

Sex work is illegal. This makes outreach by health workers, peer educators and human rights advocates difficult and almost dangerous. In most cases, they are raped, sexually assault, beaten and mistreated because of their HIV status.

Are sex workers in South Sudan affected by human trafficking?

Yes, women and girls from other countries are brought to the country and sexually exploited. To escape war and poverty, South Sudanese women are trafficked to Middle East and Asian countries under the promise of jobs. However, most of them travel with forged documents such as passports and marriage certificates.

What are the outreach activities you carry out among sex workers?

We train peer educators and carry out reaches within Juba. Every month, we collect reports on the status of sex workers, give them condoms, lubricants and carry out HIV testing with the help of Intra-health International.

How has lack of Internet access affected your work?

Generally, the Internet services in South Sudan are unreliable, limited and expensive. This means that sex workers are mainly shut from the rest of the world. It also makes it difficult to reach out to international partners in case of emergencies.

What do you consider your biggest achievements in 2018?

In 2017, the government of South Sudan shutdown AFA and most of the founders sought refuge in Uganda and Egypt.

This year, we filed a case at the National Security Service (NSS) through a lawyer in Juba. Early this year, the NSS and Relief Rehabilitation Commission allowed the organisation to work and re-register.

Also, the relocation of survivors of police brutality to Uganda for six months and data collection of sex workers at risk were one some of the greatest achievements.

What are your priority areas in 2019?

  • Increase adoption of safer sexual behaviors and reduction in risk behaviors among sex workers and opening a drop in center
  • To scale up coverage and use of biomedical HIV prevention interventions (such as voluntary medical male circumcision and PrEP), delivered as part of integrated health care services
  • To mitigate underlying sociology-cultural, gender and other factors that drive the HIV epidemic among sex workers in South Sudan
  • Scale up HIV education and ensuring sex workers access condoms more easily

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