31st July 2012
The Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRD IC) has expressed deep concern regarding the safety of five staff from the Uganda sex worker organization, Women’s Organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA). The staff members face ongoing harassment and criminal charges.
According to information received by the coalition, five of WONETHA’s members have been charged with “living on the earnings of prostitution”. The five women are due to appear in court for a third time on 31 July 2012 after their previous hearings had been adjourned and if found guilty at they face up to seven years in prison.
The charges followed a raid by police officers on the WONETHA Drop in Center in Gulu town, on May 7 2012. Authorities confiscated documents, computers and other material from the center. They also read personal emails and correspondence. The raid took place without a warrant. Two members of WONETHA staff were arrested at the scene and three further women were later arrested at the police offices when they went to visit their friends and colleagues. The arrests received attention from local media and the police presented the women as being likely guilty of the charges brought against them.
The women were held at the police offices and were not informed that they were under official arrest or given details as to the charges against them. It was not until the 9 May when the women had to give their formal statements in the presence of legal representation that they were able to receive any proper information. At this time their lawyers were able to question the authorities and get some answers concerning the charges brought against the women.
WHRD IC believes the detention, seizure and raid on the organization’s offices were arbitrary. They also consider the act of arresting and charging WONETHA’s staff members as an attempt to criminalize the legal activities of a women human rights organization. WHRD IC assert that this behaviour is based solely on discrimination against sex workers, the community WONETHA serves.
The raid of the office, the seizure and the detention of staff constitutes a violation of international and regional human rights laws that Uganda is signatory to, including the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The presentation of the five staff members of WONETHA to the media has already exposed them to unwarranted publicity which affects the presumption of their innocence.
Since its very beginning WONETHA has sought to improve the health, social and economic wellbeing of adult sex workers in Uganda. WONETHA values and respects the rights of sex workers who want to exit, and prepares them to start new livelihood enterprises.
For those women still in the sex industry, WONETHA lobbies for their protection. Because of this work WONETHA has been attacked by both the Uganda’s authorities and in turn, the general public, damaging their image and reputation. The organization has been fasley accused of recruiting women and girls into prostitution and the drop-in Center has been falsely identified as a brothel.
The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) in 2009 expressed its concern over “the increased threats and harassment faced by human rights defenders” in Uganda.
WHRD IC urges the authorities to drop the charges against the five women and calls upon the Ugandan government to fulfil their commitments under international human rights law and to respect the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, to ensure that women human rights defenders are able to carry out their legitimate activities without fear of harassment, intimidation and arrest.
Therefore, the WHRD IC calls on Ugandan government to:
- Immediately drop the charges against them.
- Carry out an immediate and impartial investigation into the raid on the WONETHA Drop in Centre and the arrest of its staff, and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.
- Ensure that effective measures are implemented to allow WONETHA’s Drop-in Center in Gulu to continue with its work as a women’s human rights organization.
- Ensure all necessary measures are implemented to ensure the physical and psychological integrity of WONETHA’s members, including preventing attacks against them based on gender stereotypes and discrimination.
- Ensure that all the necessary measures are implemented to stop the criminalization of women human rights defenders of sex workers based on discriminatory reasons, in accordance with CEDAW and ACHPR, including through legislative reforms.
The Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRD IC) is a resource and advocacy network for the protection and support of women human rights defenders worldwide.