‘I was three months pregnant when they first took me to the street. I would leave my other child in the house and lock her in, then go to the street’, says Prossy, a victim of sex trafficking.
‘I did this until I had about two months to go in the pregnancy when I started struggling and had to go and stay with my mother.’
Prossy, turned to sex work as her only means to support her family. Her husband, a man she was forced to marry after he raped her at the age of 14 and infected her with HIV, had abandoned her to go and work elsewhere. With no other options, she was introduced to sex work by a group of girls near where she was renting.
When Prossy was too heavily pregnant to continue selling sex, her mother came to stay with her and provide support, but soon after she had to return home and Prossy was forced back into prostitution. Then, she became pregnant again by a customer, who also refused to provide for her, and so with no other options, she was forced to remain in sex work.
Her story is unimaginable, but she’s not the only one. Yet, the plight of these women is so often ignored and unreported. When searching for statistics on trafficking in Uganda, figures show extreme disparities. Where UNICEF found that there were 399 registered child victims of trafficking in 2013, the Uganda Youth Development Link, estimates there are 18,000 victims each year.
The huge difference in reported victims only speaks to the larger issue at play here, that too little is being done to understand the extent of trafficking in Uganda, and thereby nowhere near enough people can be given the help they need.
For Prossy, the help she needed came in the form of Plan International UK, a charity striving to advance the rights of young girls all over the world. She was introduced to Plan while working, when social and youth workers went out on the streets to find girls in need. Providing counselling and training sessions, Prossy has built a successful shoe-making business alongside her friend, Cate.
Cate, like Prossy, turned to sex work as a means to survive. Raised in a family of eight, her upbringing was so poor that was unable to finish her education and was trafficked by friends to the capital city of Kampala to become a housemaid.
‘Our bosses were tough to us,’ says Cate, ‘they never gave us enough food, they used to segregate us in the home. Sometimes they wouldn’t pay us or would delay payments, and if anything broke they would cut what little money we were supposed to get paid.’
With no other option, she was forced into sex work, introduced by some new apparent friends who took her to bars to find customers. Living and working with other sex workers, she was trapped in a life of exploitation.
‘I was not doing that job because I liked it or wanted it’ she continues, ‘[but] because I didn’t have any skill, I felt it was my only option. After selling yourself, you come back and have some diseases. Some men may not pay you. Life was not easy.’
Cate also fell pregnant by a customer, as many men refuse to wear condoms, and while he married her and they had a second child, he left her to work in South Sudan and didn’t send money to provide for her and her children. After switching off his phone and refusing to respond, Cate was forced back onto the streets, sending her children to live with their grandmother.
It was on the streets that she met Plan social workers, who sent her to training workshops where she met Prossy. Having both been trafficked into sex work by other women, they were initially wary of each other. Their only reference point for female friendships were negative experiences of being tricked into sex work, and so it took time for them to bond. However, in realising they had one key motivation for success in common, their children, they became fast friends.
From there, their friendship only grew, and as they both developed new skill sets, they went into business together. Working out of their homes to make shoes, they also learnt how to rear chickens, which they now sell for eggs and meat. Together, they have formed a business based not only on escaping sex work, but friendship too.
‘At first, I feared her, but as we kept on talking I realised there were things I could learn from her,’ says Prossy of Cate. ‘We became closer and started loving each other. We have both gone through difficulties in life and have the same history, so she is the only person I could work with together so well.’
Sharing the same ethos, the pair are frugal about the money they earn, keen to keep it for their children and growing business. ‘We can’t extravagantly waste our money because we are always mindful about our children’, Prossy continued, ‘we can only think of spending money on things that can help to build us, and things that will be useful to our children.’
And build they have, with Cate able to bring her eldest child, Emmanuel, back to live with her and provide payment for his schooling. Assured her other son will soon follow, Cate has not only rebuilt her own life but now inspires other women to do the same.
‘I thought I could not do anything in life, I felt small’, she said, ‘but now I can do things. If I get money now I can become a boss, I can employ other girls because I know their situation. That’s what I want to do, to go and bring more, because I know they are still there.’
For the future, they plan to expand their business through investing in new equipment. With a business plan entitled ‘Vision 2018’ laid out on their sewing table, they have outlined every investment they need to make in order to grow.
It’s their combined vision and friendship that has not only brought them personal success but continues to embolden them to do more. ‘We know that we are going ahead, one day you will find us doing big things, more than this’, Cate confirms promises.
Their story is just one of many uplifting ways some women in Uganda are taking back control of their lives, but there is still so much work to be done. Plan continue to campaign to end the exploitation of women across the world. Most recently, they successfully lobbied the Commonwealth Heads of Government to recognise that gender is a key component in modern slavery and trafficking.
It may seem obvious, but in just acknowledging this fact and promising to take action, charities can now hold the government to account. And in dealing with it the way that Plan do, lives can clearly be changed.
If you want to know more about their campaign, and how to help stop more women go through what Cate and Prossy have, click here.