The growing number of Ugandan women being recruited into forced sex work abroad has led to a government investigation into human trafficking.
Hajah Noraihan, the honorary consul of Uganda in Malaysia, says more than 600 Ugandan women have been trafficked into the sex trade there.
“They are conned into coming to Malaysia for high-paying jobs, which are non-existent,” Noraihan told IRIN. “And when they go there, they are informed that they have to sell their bodies.”
Linda Muyimba* was trafficked to Malaysia following the promise of a free ticket and a retail job that would pay her 2.5 million Ugandan shillings a month (about US$1,080).
Job offers are rare in Uganda, and unemployment is high. Muyimba says she did not ask how a visa was processed, or which company had recruited her.
“I just wanted to get some good money so I can help my kid, I can help my mom. I never imagined this would happen,” Muyimba said.
In July 2011, Muyimba says she ended up alongside about a dozen other Ugandan women in a Chinese hotel, for what she thought would be a brief stopover on her way to her new job. Until a Ugandan woman she knew only as Faith took her passport, limited her movements, and started sending a string of men into her hotel room.
“She didn’t answer anything,” Muyimba said. “When you refused she would slap us and not give us food to eat.”
Muyimba says she was held against her will in that hotel for a month and forced to sleep with multiple men every day. When she tried to escape, she and another woman were flown to Malaysia.
She never made it past immigration, and was detained there for months. After falling ill, she found out she was pregnant. When she later miscarried, she also found out she had contracted HIV.
In December 2011, she was repatriated to Uganda by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Noraihan says at least 10 Ugandan trafficked women continue to join Malaysia’s sex trade daily.
Obtaining reliable figures is difficult, according to the IOM. For instance, anyone over the age of 18, who says they are in the trade voluntarily, cannot be considered trafficked, despite pervasive methods of intimidation from their bosses.
“These loopholes in the law are well known and exploited in an opportunistic manner by traffickers,” Zafarullah Hassim, an IOM Uganda representative, told IRIN via email.
In Malaysia, figures have only come from proactive visa raids on illegal migrants since authorities busted a trafficking ring last October, in which 21 Ugandan women were discovered in a brothel in the capital, Kuala Lumpur.
The IOM has repatriated 14 Ugandan women from Malaysia as of 23 February.
According to Uganda’s director of Interpol, Asan Kasingye, Ugandan women are also being trafficked to India, Thailand, China, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Ugandan women are also being trafficked to India, Thailand, China, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates
India provided a number - 300 - of Ugandan trafficking survivors, says Kasingye.
IOM says it is developing a database for trafficking survivors.
A parliamentary committee is now scheduled to travel to Malaysia on 5 March to investigate, while a new joint taskforce led by Internal Affairs is expected to report on 15 March.
James Mugume, the permanent secretary for Foreign Affairs, says the staggering figure of 600 women took government by surprise.
“Trafficking was not an issue until we got this big problem of Malaysia,” he said.
But Noraihan says she warned the Ugandan government of the emerging crisis in 2008.
Nothing was done and this is what happened,” Noraihan said.
She and Mugume agree that action needed to be taken at home.
“The biggest issue is we have to stop the traffic from here – and that’s why Internal Affairs is very crucial - to track down the companies doing the recruiting here,” Mugume said.
Yet domestic labour export companies have been allowed to operate with impunity for years, says Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi, a Kampala-based lawyer bringing a class action against the Ugandan government for its complicity in trafficking.
Rwakafuuzi is representing an estimated 147 women who were allegedly sold into domestic slavery in Iraq in 2009. Only 18 of these have been repatriated, he says, and government has failed to prosecute those responsible.
“If government had heeded this then, we could have plugged some of these loopholes,” Rwakafuuzi said. “It [human trafficking] is getting worse every day.”
The accused company, Uganda Veterans Development Ltd, briefly had its licence to export labour revoked by a unit in the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development (MGLSD); it was re-issued in December 2010.
“In this country, you cannot get a labour export licence without being politically connected,” Rwakafuuzi said. “They are being protected from prosecution.”
On 8 February, MP Elijah Okupa tabled a petition in Parliament demanding an investigation into domestic labour export companies. The MGLSD is now head of another parliamentary committee, expected to table a report in mid-March.
Though Uganda’s Trafficking in Persons Bill was enacted in 2009, an already overwhelmed court system has yet to convict anyone under it. According to the US State Department Trafficking in Persons report for 2011, at least 16 investigations have been outstanding since then.
“The intelligence is there but there is something missing,” said Kasingye. “We have an enabling law, we must use the provisions of that law to find all the people who are involved in trafficking in persons.”
Kasingye called for a regional approach modelled on the West Africa Coast Initiative (WACI), which allows for a dedicated unit in each affected country to share information.
Many Ugandan survivors are first taken to Rwanda, Burundi or Kenya and then flown to Asia or the Middle East for sexual slavery, Kasingye said.
The WACI-based Transnational Crime Units (TCU) would ideally work closely with prosecutors as well.
Last October, the American Bar Association re-launched its human trafficking programme in Uganda, with the aim of coordinating implementation across sectors.
*Not her real name