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Open Access Research article

‘It is like a tomato stall where someone can pick what he likes’: structure and practices of female sex work in Kampala, Uganda

Martin Mbonye1, Sarah Nakamanya1, Winifred Nalukenge1, Rachel King2, Judith Vandepitte14 and Janet Seeley134*

Author Affiliations

1 MRC/UVRI Uganda Research Unit on AIDS, P.O. Box 49, Entebbe, Uganda

2 Department of Global Health, University of California, San Francisco, USA

3 School of International Development, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK

4 London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK

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BMC Public Health 2013, 13:741  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-741

Published: 10 August 2013

Abstract

Background

Effective interventions among female sex workers require a thorough knowledge of the context of local sex industries. We explore the organisation of female sex work in a low socio-economic setting in Kampala, Uganda.

Methods

We conducted a qualitative study with 101 participants selected from an epidemiological cohort of 1027 women at high risk of HIV in Kampala. Repeat in-depth life history and work practice interviews were conducted from March 2010 to June 2011. Context specific factors of female sex workers’ day-to-day lives were captured. Reported themes were identified and categorised inductively.

Results

Of the 101 women, 58 were active self-identified sex workers operating in different locations within the area of study and nine had quit sex work. This paper focuses on these 67 women who gave information about their involvement in sex work. The majority had not gone beyond primary level of education and all had at least one child. Thirty one voluntarily disclosed that they were HIV-positive. Common sex work locations were streets/roadsides, bars and night clubs. Typically sex occurred in lodges near bars/night clubs, dark alleyways or car parking lots. Overall, women experienced sex work-related challenges at their work locations but these were more apparent in outdoor settings. These settings exposed women to violence, visibility to police, a stigmatising public as well as competition for clients, while bars provided some protection from these challenges. Older sex workers tended to prefer bars while the younger ones were mostly based on the streets. Alcohol consumption was a feature in all locations and women said it gave them courage and helped them to withstand the night chill. Condom use was determined by clients’ willingness, a woman’s level of sobriety or price offered.

Conclusions

Sex work operates across a variety of locations in the study area in Kampala, with each presenting different strategies and challenges for those operating there. Risky practices are present in all locations although they are higher on the streets compared to other locations. Location specific interventions are required to address the complex challenges in sex work environments.

Keywords:
Female sex work; Risk behaviour; Location; HIV; Uganda; Africa