While talking to a couple of Ugandan police officers the topic of forced prostitution came up. They were happy to explain some of the finer details of the sex trade and the problems that they have to combat it.
What normally happens is that a couple of girls, normally late teens, early twenties who are already established in the business will identify a young girl in one of the villages. They look for girls with bad home lives and doing poorly in school. Girls like Jennifer. They promise the girls that they have jobs for them in hotels and restaurants where they can make their own money and be independent. If the younger girls accept the offer, they are taken to the islands on Lake Victoria. To the older girls’ credit, the new young girls do get jobs as housekeepers and cooks. But only by day. By night they’re forced into prostitution. One of the small blessings according to the police is that the percentage of clients who are foreign tourists is microscopic. Or maybe that’s not a blessing, but in the rare case they’re able to make an arrest, the police find it easier to prosecute locals compared to foreigners.
After about a month of service, the girls are normally cast out. This is one of the most difficult issues to handle. The vast majority of the girls are ashamed of what they did and afraid to go home. And since these girls come from poor homes and have little schooling, they normally have few options available to them. How should they be resettled? If they’re sent straight back to their village there’s a small chance they may be cast out. But if they are not put someone with a proper support network what’s to stop them from falling into the same trap? It is not an easy situation.
The Ugandan police force is often maligned. They can be corrupt, inefficient, and overly violent handling suspects. But in this case, with the ones working on an open sex trafficking case, they are committed to doing what they can to fight this business. Maybe it’s because it’s a small outpost and they don’t get big cases like this often. Maybe it’s because it’s a small outpost in a small village and they are proud and feel responsible for the safety of their friends and neighbors. Or maybe it’s because they truly believe that underage prostitution is a serious issue in Uganda. Whatever the reason is, they’re doing their all on this particular case. Unfortunately a refrain you’ll hear from any police office here is ‘There is simply a lack of resources.’ It’s of course possible that they’ll tell the mzungu (foreigner) this because they want a pay off, but in a case as complex as this one there’s a good chance they’re telling the truth. Boat fuel to get to the islands where some girls are thought to be held is not free. A couple of bills can make witnesses less reluctant to talk. And the sad truth is that these trafficking gangs will bribe cops to leave them alone. And some cops will take bribes to leave the trafficking gangs along. But luckily for Uganda there are still plenty of officers out there who are not in this for the money. A good cop is something to be grateful for and respected, so if you’re in Uganda don’t assume all of the police are crooks. The bad ones get the press, the good ones just do their jobs.