"Sex work may be illegal in Uganda, but providing services for sex workers is clearly not," reads a statement from 9 May 2012 by WONETHA, a health and human rights organisation, in response to a serious crack-down on its activities by Ugandan municipal police.
On May 7, police authorities in the Ugandan city of Gulu – a city located approximately 320km north of Kampala by road with 150,000 inhabitants - 'dropped by' a sex worker drop-in centre. They raided the small office and arrested two staff and three members of the Women’s Organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA), a duly-registered group that runs the centre.
This raid, the fourth in the city since mid-April, appears to be part of a deliberate strategy by the Gulu Police to play tough. Previously, on 13 April 2012, Gulu's officer in charge of crime, Ozelle John Bosco, told a local reporter that he has "formed an operational group that has started moving at night doing patrol to track down prostitutes and drug abusers."
The raid appears is in direct violation of the rights of women human rights defenders at WONETHA. "We find this to be an attack on WONETHA and sex workers' freedom of association, assembly, speech and expression, and we strongly protest against this," says a release by Macklean Kyomya, WONETHA's Executive director.
Beyond those rights, the raid also raises the question of digital security. One of the three members that was arrested recounts the raid: "They started searching our office in every corner including the dust bin. They connected the computer and asked me the password, and opened the emails we send to our office in Kampala. They asked me if we have a flash disk which I said we didn't... but we have a modem for our Internet. They took it, along with papers, a printer, the cash book, a stapling machine, a puncher, a computer and a CPU".
The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) is closely monitoring this case and reviewing the digital security implications of the authorities' seizure of hardware and software at the drop-in centre. Article 5.1 of APC's Internet Rights Charter insists that "the right to data protection public or private organisations that require personal information from individuals must collect only the minimal data necessary and for the minimal period of time needed. They must only process data for the minimal stated purposes." In this case "clear purposes" have not been stated, thereby making the police intervention look suspicious at best, and even possibly illegitimate and illegal.
While in police custody, the women heard police say: "that they are accusing us of promoting prostitution in Gulu, the office is used as a brothel at night (...), of sleeping with other women and recruiting girls into prostitution." All five arrested advocates were finally charged with “Living off the earnings of prostitution,” an accusation that they vehemently denounce. "They were saying false allegations. They did not ask us to give them any statement. Even when they came to arrest us, they did not have the warrant of arrest or search warrant and we were not allowed to ask any question, as we were taken to the Central police and detained.”
What sounds like an illegal raid by a zealous crime unit may in fact become a precedent illustrating online and offline security problems faced by women human rights defenders worldwide.
APC's Connect Your Rights campaign as been working in partnership with Violence is not our Culture Campaign, Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, Tactical Tech Collective and Front Line Defenders to build the capacity of women human rights defenders' secure online communication skills. A recent global strategic dialogue on this critical issue noted the particular threats that women human rights defenders face online. These threats and violations online are on the increase and not limited to state security but also come from conservative forces who aim to disrupt the work of defenders. As one defender said: “every country has their specific context surrounding online security but the fact is that all of us are at risk of being identified, and our information is vulnerable to being cracked.
You can read more about this in a special edition of GenderIT.org on digital security and women human rights defenders http://www.genderit.org/node/3469
More on APC's Connect Your Rights collaboration
More on WONETHA
WONETHA seeks to improve the health, social and economic standards of adult sex workers in Uganda through organizing and building their capacity to advocate for and promote equitable access to health, legal and social protection services. We value and respect the rights of sex workers who want to exit and facilitate their sustainable retirement at the same time protect the rights of those who choose to continue in sex work.