Economic Empowerment for Sex Workers: In a village where many women have few options except sex work, ROM training in candle and liquid soap-making aims to increase job opportunities and reduce HIV.

By Annika McGinnis

When she was a small child, 16-year-old AB* crossed the border into Uganda from the DRC with her mother and stepfather. The family moved into the small village of Konakilak in Uganda’s central Nakaseke District with hopes for a brighter future.

But after both of her parents died, AB was stuck in the village, alone. She moved in with a neighbor, but she had no one to help her pay for school or shelter. Since she had grown up in Uganda, the adolescent said she hoped to stay in the country, find work and earn enough to return to school.

But the community of Konakilak, where more than 90% of women are commercial sex workers, suffers from high rates of poverty and HIV. Even older women are out lining the streets at night to wait for sex, said Herbert Mwesigwa, a volunteer with the community-based NGO Reach Out Mbuya Parish HIV/AIDS Initiative.

“I don’t want to stay in Konakilak. I’m not good with men… I don’t want to be with men to get diseases,” AB said.

But there are few other options for her to earn an income.

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Trainees learn how to make liquid soap at a Reach Out Mbuya training in Konakilak.

The village of Konakilak arose as traders, partners and commercial sex workers moved close to Ssingo Military Barracks, a training ground for soldiers. In early 2002, Uganda sent soldiers to the Congo to fight rebels. After the mission, the soldiers returned to the barracks, often with women from abroad. But when soldiers were transferred to different bases, their women remained in Konakilak alone.

In October, the community-based NGO Reach Out Mbuya Parish HIV/AIDS Initiative piloted a weeklong training in liquid soap and candle-making and entrepreneurship for the most-at-risk populations, including these women who are often forced into sex work to make a living. About 150 female sex workers or other vulnerable people such as fisherfolk or people who inject with drugs were trained in Nakaseke district during the weeklong session, which was held in both Konakilak and its neighboring community Kapeeka.

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The ROM skills trainings began with groups of urban poor in Kampala, but Reach Out Mbuya decided to expand the program to Konakilak after realizing the lack of alternative employment opportunities for the female sex workers living in the area.

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One trainee at the October training was 30-year-old PQ*, who came to Uganda from the Congo in 2000 with a soldier, but was left alone when her partner was transferred to another base. She has 3 children in the Congo, but no money to travel to see them. Once, she briefly left Uganda for Sudan, but after her business selling a cosmetic cream failed, she returned to Uganda.

“I want them to give me the work or make a business,” she said at the training, as she stirred the ingredients for liquid soap in a large green pot. “I want to train in this job. This is good work.”

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Reach Out Mbuya’s presence in the Konakilak community began in May 2015 with a ground mobilization that revealed the skyrocketing rate of HIV in the area. Many people were paying for expensive ARV drugs from clinics in the barracks, and others had no access to drugs at all, Mwesigwa said.

ROM gained permission from Nakaseke District to offer free HIV testing, counseling and treatment services in Konakilak and opened its first outreach clinic in June 2015. A year and half later, Reach Out Mbuya was serving 500 clients. To address the high number of infants exposed to HIV, Reach Out Mbuya was prioritizing PMTCT services for pregnant and lactating mothers and their babies.

St. Tereza Kabogwe Health Center: “Bringing services closer to the people here” 

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In a sleepy village 30 minutes from Konakilak, a lone boda-boda driver rolled lazily past a few brick homes, a small stand exuding the smell of fresh fried chapatti. Central to the neighborhood was a simple church with a red roof and stained-glass windows. Inside, 17 men and women sat on plastic chairs and simple wooden benches interspersed between African drums.

A ROM trainer’s voice rang out in Luganda, explaining the process of making liquid soap.

“Liquid Soap: Materials Used; Equipments Needed; Storage of Materials; Cost of Materials,” read posters tacked on the church wall.

A sign outside the church advertised family planning services. It was St. Tereza Kabogwe Health Center, a small health clinic caring for patients in rural areas of Luweero District, the site of one of the Reach Out Mbuya skills trainings.

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During the morning sessions, trainees learned the theory of soap and candle-making, while during the afternoons, participants practiced making the products.

One trainee, 44-year-old Nakabugo Maria Gorretti, hoped the new skills could potentially help her provide for her large family. With three of her own children, she also cared for six orphans, many of whom had lost their parents to HIV.

She had grown up in the area and helped in originally constructing the church. As her husband often traveled for work, she was typically left alone in her house to care for her nine dependents. But money was tight, especially as one orphan suffered from leprosy, and harvests from her garden this season were unusually poor.

Gorretti and her fellow community members were grateful for Reach Out Mbuya’s economic empowerment skills development courses, she said. They hoped that after completing them, they would be able to boost their incomes.

“I thank Reach Out Mbuya for bringing services closer to the people here,” she said. “Now the HIV-positive people can come here and get drugs. Reach Out Mbuya is very far, but they extend their services to this side so that even the HIV-positive people and vulnerable children can get help.”

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