'Who is going to stand up for us?' A trans sex worker in Uganda on life under lockdown

by Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 14 April 2020 14:30 GMT

Anna Xwexx Morena, transgender sex worker and head of the Anna Uganda Foundation. Handout by Anna Uganda Foundation

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

'I don't know what I am going to eat tomorrow, and I don't know if I'm going to survive the next day.'

This is the second article in a series examining how coronavirus lockdowns are affecting  vulnerable people around the world. 

KAMPALA, April 14, 2020

LGBT+ rights in Uganda have long faced social and cultural hurdles.

Last year, the "Kill the Gays" bill – so-called as it would introduce the death penalty for gay sex – was raised again by Ugandan lawmakers, despite having provoked international condemnation on its first airing in 2014.

The proposal was dismissed by the government, but the controversy sparked by the bill's new backers shone a spotlight on the problems faced by the LGBT+ community in the country.

Transgender people living in Uganda, many of whom earn a living as sex workers, face particular difficulties, as Anna Xwexx Morena explains.

This is her story, as told to Hugo Greenhalgh, Openly Editor.:    

"I'm really scared because it's just weeks since the country has been on national lockdown because of coronavirus. What about if it gets to a month? We are going to be starving.

My life has changed a lot, much more negatively than I expected. Sex work is not happening at the moment as there are no clients on the roads, and this means I cannot afford to pay my bills or even pay for food.

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Most hospitals are closed and even clinics that are for LGBTI people are not working, so it's becoming difficult for me to even gain referrals for my HIV treatment.

How are we going to survive as transgender women?

I was born a boy outside Kampala. I lost my mum when I was one so I grew up with my step-mum and my real dad but I always knew I was different. I thought I was maybe gay or bisexual.

I tried to talk to my friends about it, but they were not understanding, and it was not until I met members of the LGBTI community that I realised the perfect way to describe me was as a transgender woman.

Then my parents found out. They were so harsh and I was forced to leave home when I was 16.

Life became very hard for me, but then I met a transgender woman who was a sex worker. She told me the only way transgender women can survive was through sex work because no one is going to employ a trans woman.

But now the number of clients has really dropped as they fear the spread of the disease.

Most of the transgender women working as sex workers work for survival. When I work I can earn about 160,000 Ugandan shillings ($42) a month. I pay 130,000 shillings rent so I just have 30,000 shillings to help with my bills and everything else.

For the past two to three weeks, I have lost about 320,000 shillings or something, so it is very hard for me right now.

I was living on my savings but they did not last very long. Then a long-time client sent me 100,000 shillings which has been keeping me going for the past four days.

After that, I am going to be living on God's mercy. I am living a life where I don't know what I am going to eat tomorrow, and I don't know if I'm going to survive the next day.

It's a tragedy.

All the prices have been increased, despite the president saying they should be reduced. For example, I used to buy a kilogram of sugar at 4,500 shillings. Now it is 6,500 shillings.

I am also worried about my safety.

In Uganda, we are allowed to go out, but we – as transgender women – have decided to stay indoors for our security.

We worry that if a trans woman is attacked at the moment, the government will not take it seriously as their attention is fully on working towards eradicating the pandemic.

My fears right now are that with the coronavirus, transgender women cannot access any services as most of the hospitals have closed. Transgender women are going to reach a point of committing suicide if they can't access mental health services due to coronavirus.

Trans people are being targeted, as is the wider LGBTI community. People see us as having money because they know we have donor help coming in. I feel very scared as crime rates are going up in Uganda at the moment.

Now with the coronavirus, the government needs to come up with humanitarian aid. How else are we going to get food?

Who now is going to stand up for us and protect us?"

Any views expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and not of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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