Lady Mermaid – giving sex workers a voice
AIDS-Fondet funds and supports Lady Mermaid Empowerment Centre (LMEC) to inform and give sex workers tools to prevent HIV – as well as giving them a voice so they can push back and help end discrimination and violence against them.
Tools and agency in the fight against HIV
Trainings on safe sex, access to condoms, PrEP, and options for stigma-free testing for STIs are key elements in Lady Mermaid’s work to inform and provide sex workers with knowledge and tools to avoid HIV and other STIs.
In addition, Lady Mermaid also works to change the bigger picture in which violence, discrimination and abuse of sex workers is commonplace. On the one hand Lady Mermaid targets police officers, health personnel, policy makers as well as local and traditional leaders for trainings and information sharing about sex work and the rights of sex workers.
On the other it develops the capacity of sex workers so that they know their rights and can make them count when they are discriminated against or threatened. They get a voice and a say in their own lives.
Expanding the reach
Building on the success of reaching out to sex workers in high density suburbs of Kampala, Lady Mermaid will increase its reach in 2022-2025 to two new cities in Eastern Uganda on the border with Kenya – on the main transit route between the two countries.
Many sex workers are attracted to such places because of the promise of profits where lorry drivers, informal cross border traders and travelers meet.
About Lady Mermaid's Empowerment Centre
Lady Mermaid Empowerment Centre (Lady Mermaid) was founded in 2002 – as Lady Mermaid’s Bureau – by a group of people who wanted to improve the lives of vulnerable women and sex workers.
In 2014 it became sex worker led and changed its name to Lady Mermaid Empowerment Centre – and sex workers have been represented at all levels since.
Lady Mermaid works to improve the lives of sex workers in four areas:
- Health and Policy Advocacy – Creating awareness about sex workers and their human rights – in order to create a more tolerant environment where sex workers kan access stigma-free health services and where service providers and the community at large appreciate and respect sex workers rights.
- Institutional and community capacity building – Building the capacity of Lady Mermaid as an organisation to develop, implement, and sustain development programs that aim to reach the goal and mission of Lady Mermaid – giving sex workers a voice.
- Research and Documentation – Collecting data to inform the work regarding sex workers rights and health issues and to ensure that advocacy work is rooted in evidence.
- Partnership, mobilization and networking; Strengthening partnerships with government, collaborators and development partners to ensure support and alignment for advocacy efforts aimed at developing the sex worker community and uplifting sex workers.
Since 2015, Lady Mermaid has distributed more than 1,000 information-loaded SIM cards to their members with HIV safety information, text as well as audio, which the members can access on their own phones. Besides information on HIV/AIDS, the SIM cards also include information on what to say if the women are approached by police officers.
Support groups for sex workers have been initiated on Whatsapp to enable sex workers to get support even when they are not able to meet physically.
During lockdowns in Uganda Lady Mermaid introduced the ‘Ride top 95-95-95’ where sex workers, their clients, and their partners could order HIV prevention packs that were delivered to them on motorbikes.
In 2021 AIDS-Fondet and Lady Mermaid secured funding for the development of a platform for telling the stories of sex workers – intially as a digital platform dubbed Neeko’s Blog. This was a novel way of giving the sex workers a voice – and then amplifying it.
The idea proved so popular in the sex worker movement across Uganda that Lady Mermaid decided to turn it into the first magazine written for and by sex workers in Uganda.
Funding came from a special funding modality called ‘Rebuilding Civic Space’ which was agreed to in the Danish parliament as a response to the shrinking civic space in the Global South under Corona lockdowns. The fund was administered by Civil Society in Development (CISU).
Lady Mermaid and AIDS-Fondet
Lady Mermaid and AIDS-Fondet first collaborated between 2019-2021 in a programme aimed at preventing HIV among Key Populations – and sex workers in particular. The current programme (2022-2025) is the second phase.
During the first phase Lady Mermaid has made tremendous progress in providing testing for sex workers – at their drop-in center as well as during out-reach excercises. And faced with adverse conditions because of Corona, Lady Mermaid has proved to be flexible and innovative – something that AIDS-Fondet has encouraged and supported.
Sex work is criminalised as ‘prostitution’ in Uganda. According to the law, ‘any person who practices or engages in prostitution commits an offence and is liable to imprisonment for seven years.
At the beginning of 2021, the Parliament of Uganda approved a new sexual offences bill that offers provisions designed to prevent and punish sexual violence, but at the same time it further criminalizes LGBT+ people and sex workers as well as organisations representing them and fighting for their rights. It also included provisions that discriminate based on HIV status.
The President, Yoweri Museveni, did not sign the bill in its current form – but the bill in a revised form is pending in 2022.
The hostile legal environment bolsters stigma against sex workers in the general population – and people involved in sex work are regularly met with stigma and discrimination in their families and in many places in society.
Even accessing condoms can be difficult as they are either not available or accessing them is seen as a sign of immorality – and Lady Mermaid has seen examples of female sex workers using thin plastic bags from the market as condoms instead.
Traditional and conservative, religious views shape attitudes in health personnel and law enforcement – and negative reactions to sex workers range from denial of service in health clinics to harassment, violence, and rape committed by police officers.
“Violence is common, with more than 80% of sex workers experiencing recent client-perpetrated violence and 18% experiencing intimate partner violence. More than 30% had a history of extreme war-related trauma. HIV prevalence among sex workers is 31.3%”
avert.org (2019) / unaids (2020)
During Covid19 restrictions have been strictly enforced by police as well as soldiers – and Lady Mermaid has recorded several cases of abuse and even murder.
Funded by Civil Society in Development
AIDS-Fondet’s support for and collaboration with Lady Mermaid Empowerment Centre is funded by Civil Society in Development (CISU) in Denmark – through the Civil Society Fund – from 2022 to 2025.
It is the second phase of funding for a programme that began in 2019 and encompasses four organisations in Malawi and Uganda.
The Civil Society Fund is an independent support facility financed by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and run by CISU.
The ministry prescribes the general criteria for awarding grants based on the decisions of the Danish Parliament regarding Danish development cooperation.
The overall amount of the Civil Society Fund is appropriated annually in the Danish Finance Act (Finansloven).
Read more about CISU by clicking the logo.