Shame & Notoriety: Stopping Police Rape of Sex Workers in Uganda

Photo: Scott Davidson

Originally posted on Gender Across Borders: A Global Feminist Blog.

Last February, I sat across from 50 Ugandan prostitutes who sought my legal advice.  They wanted me to get the police to stop raping them. I was the legal consultant at Platform for Labour Action (PLA), a Ugandan non-governmental organization that provides marginalized workers with free legal services. The prostitutes had formed an association called the Lady Mermaids Bureau, which partnered with organizations like PLA to help the women receive medical, psychological, social, and legal support.

Within two months of our first meeting, the prostitutes had developed and applied a strategy that prevented police assaults. I was introduced to the prostitutes in a small parking lot in a Kampala slum. There, the women confided in me and two other PLA lawyers that police typically raped them two times a week. Sometimes the police dragged them into an alley and raped them there; other times, the attacks occurred after forcing the women into the back of patrol cars. If the women resisted, the police stole their money, beat them, and threatened imprisonment.

Contemplating how to help these women, PLA’s director and I decided that pursuing criminal prosecutions was a fool’s errand: the police officers would protect each other and do everything necessary to stymie any criminal investigation. Filing a complaint with the police department or suing the government was also unsatisfactory. While either approach might provide victims some small monetary relief, neither would deter future wrongdoing because they would shift the focus away from the individual bad actors and onto an amorphous governmental entity.  We needed another strategy.

I had an idea. What if we removed government from the picture entirely? What if we ignored the abuse of power element and legally analyzed the problem as a typical rape case (putting aside that no such thing exists)?  Because rape is both a crime and a tort – a civil wrong – the woman would be able to sue the man in civil court for monetary damages.  We could represent the prostitutes in civil lawsuits against each policeman and publicize the details of every case.

First, the prostitutes needed to gather information about their attackers. After performing a security review to determine how best to protect the plaintiffs, we would file our first lawsuit.

Some Ugandans I spoke with were skeptical about the idea. They told me that the Ugandan public following the case in the press likely would not sympathize with the prostitutes. Many Ugandans assume that sexual attacks by police officers are part and parcel of a prostitute’s work:  selling your body for money on the street meant that you were asking to be raped by the police. Though that perspective sadly contained a hefty dose of truth, it was also myopic in one fundamental way:  it undervalued the extent to which the policemen themselves would be shamed merely for having had sex with a prostitute, and the repercussions of that shame among the officer’s friends and family. That embarrassment, and the financial strain of a lawsuit, might just be enough to stop them.

We decided to put the plan into action. I asked the prostitutes whether the police officers wore their uniforms when they assaulted the women. The police almost always did, it turned out. The patrol cars were also almost always nearby while an attack occurred.

After explaining our strategy, I asked the women to memorize officers’ badge and patrol car numbers, names, and appearances. As a test case, we then would sue the policeman who had raped the most women. His name would be in the papers, and his face on television. He would have to endure a long, humiliating public lawsuit. He would personally feel the consequences of his actions. Other police officers watching would think twice before raping again. Winning the lawsuit would be irrelevant; the mere fact of filing and publicizing it would do the trick. It would deter future egregious conduct.

Six weeks later, the sex workers came to PLA and told us that our advice had worked wondrously:  not a single prostitute from the Lady Mermaids Bureau had been raped, beaten, or arrested by the police since we had spoken with them in that parking lot.

I was dumbstruck. What advice? All I had asked was for them to memorize information.  Instead, armed with that simple instruction, the women went on the attack. They told  approaching policemen, “I have memorized your badge number and name. If you touch me, my lawyers at Platform for Labour Action will come after you.”  That was enough to frighten the would-be rapist into leaving the women alone.

Though not exactly what we had counseled, the outcome was more successful than I could have imagined. The women took my words and applied them in a way that made sense to them, based on their intimate knowledge of the street. They were able to look at their problem from a new perspective, and then help themselves.

A credible threat of legal action halted rogue policemen from sexually assaulting a small group of Ugandan women. I often wonder whether this strategy could be replicated elsewhere, using a three-pronged approach: (i) threats of lawsuits, (ii) backed up by actual filings of lawsuits when necessary, (iii) in conjunction with aggressive press campaigns.

Although we were successful with the Lady Mermaids Bureau, this approach might not work elsewhere because each location has its own political, cultural, social, and legal peculiarities.  I think we first need to address these and other questions:

  1. Is this approach sustainable or will policemen eventually “become wise” to these tactics?
  2. Must a country have a free press for this strategy to work?  How free?
  3. Perhaps most important, how do we protect the women who will be carrying out the strategy?

Avner Mizrahi is a human rights lawyer, originally from New Jersey. After graduating from law school in 2006, he spent three years working as an insurance litigator at a large Washington, D.C. law firm. He left the firm to serve in the American Jewish World Service’s Volunteer Corps in Uganda, where he spent seven months as the legal consultant to a local NGO, Platform for Labour Action. He left Uganda in mid-June and traveled through Africa for a month and then Asia for five months. He’ll head back to Uganda in the next few months to work on some more human rights projects. If you’re curious to learn more about his experiences in Uganda, check out his blog.

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One Response to Shame & Notoriety: Stopping Police Rape of Sex Workers in Uganda

  1. Despair says:

    Hello there. i am a Ugandan man leaving in despair and hoping that some form of justice can be carried out. Recently, my wife was taken to police and i foolishly thought she would be handled humanely since women policemen were in charge of the process. it was a simple wrangle concerning a soldier who was angry with her for refusing his attempts to woe her and so had her locked up for the night then released the next day.
    To summarize the horific ideal, she was raped by one of her guards. i have no means to seek justice and i feel totally helpless. i am begging anyone there who can do anything to please help.
    at least let her know some sense of justice was found.

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