*Please note: this story contains references to sexual violence and abuse which some people may find upsetting.*
"When I went to the bar, the boss told me ‘you can only have this job if you sleep with me.’” – Namusanza, Uganda
In Uganda, as many as one in ten girls have been affected by sexual abuse and exploitation — and girls like Namusanza tell us that this is a real issue for them at work.
Some have been forced to leave education, and many are financially desperate, and often have young children, parents and siblings to support. That’s why, when they get a job in a bar, restaurant or hotel, it can feel like a lifeline.
But lots of business owners are using this to their advantage, forcing female employees to have sex with them to get a job, and coercing them into having sex with customers to keep it. If they don’t comply, they’re often told to keep quiet — or threatened with losing their job.
Namusanza, Jazeo and Joy are among many girls in Uganda who have experienced this first hand and now, by sharing their stories, they are taking a stand.
In Uganda, Namusanza* began working in a bar in the capital city, Kampala, after her mother died. She was 17 years old.
“My father married another woman. She never wanted us to study, so my father refused to give us school fees,” she explains.
Her friend suggested they start working and found them both jobs in a bar — but their first meeting with their new boss wasn’t what Namusanza was expecting.
“He told me, ‘you know very well that before getting a job you’re supposed to have sex with me’. But I was very young, I couldn’t imagine sleeping with a man.
“I started crying. I think he realised that I was very innocent, so he told me I could start working. But he told me, ‘it is the role of the waitresses in the bar to entice but also to please the customers’.
“I started having sex with him, I started having sex with the customers, because that was the only way I would keep my job.”
“We would love us girls to be in a better place. We cannot be at the bars because we are treated as animals, as non-human beings.” — Namusanza
“The manager told me I should make all the customers happy. Whatever they do to me, I shouldn’t say anything.” — Jazeo*
“One time we tried to report it to someone, an elder woman in the village, but she didn’t do anything about it. We were not helped,” says Jazeo, who is now 18.
She began work in a bar in Kampala after she was forced to drop out of school, because her mum couldn’t afford to pay her and her sister’s school fees.
“Someone called my mother and said they had found a job for me. I was very happy because I had no source of living. I had no options. My sister needed tuition, so I decided to take it,” she says.
“When I went to the bar, the boss told me ‘you can only have this job if you sleep with me’. After that, he told me if I wanted to get a raise in wages, I had to go and live with him and keep sleeping with him. It was the only way for me to survive.”
“I would start at 8 in the morning and end at 2am the next day,” says 17-year-old Joy*, who got a job in a bar in Kampala after both her parents died.
“The owner wanted me to put on attractive clothing and short miniskirts. He wanted me to sit with the customers, to keep them company and allow them to touch my body and kiss me. The boss would beat me if I didn’t allow that.
“If the customers gave me money as a tip, the boss would take it from me. He would beat me.” She says. “Sometimes he wouldn’t give me my pay and would say, ‘you have to sleep with me first’.”
“It was the only job I had so that I could survive. I didn’t have anywhere to go.”
Girls like Namusanza, Jazeo and Joy are being exploited because they’re young and female. They’re conditioned to keep quiet about their abuse as ‘part of the job’ — and if they are brave enough to speak up, they’re often not believed or taken seriously, or able to fully access justice.
But now there’s a chance for change. The Ugandan Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development is about to launch an official consultation into the sexual exploitation of girls and young women at work — which is good news. It offers a huge opportunity to get to the root of the problem, so the responsible authorities can take action.
It’s also why Namusanza, Jazeo and Joy are speaking out about their experiences, so that future generations of girls don’t have to face the same exploitation they have.
“Girls working at bars are suffering,” says Namusanza, who is now living back in her village again. “I want the future generation of girls to live a better life. Their rights should be respected.”
Joy and Jazeo are also re-building their lives. Jazeo was able to save enough money to study fashion and design and is now making money from tailoring.
Joy still works in the bar, but is studying during the day and earning additional money from styling people’s hair, so that she can create a better future for herself. Like Namusanza, she’s determined to use her story to create change.
“There are very many girls out there who have lost parents, who are orphans, who go to these places to work and are exploited,” she says.
“If people hear my voice they will know that it really exists, and I think action will be done if people hear what I’m saying.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities
Stand with the girls of Uganda
In Uganda, youth advocates Fiona, Rowlings and Faridah are calling for the government’s consultation to focus on why action isn’t being taken when incidents of sexual exploitation are reported. Help raise their voices by signing their letter here.