Finding Unity in Uganda’s Diverse Sex Workers’ Movement: Profiling Shamillah Batte

For the next few months, ASWA will be highlighting the work of courageous African sex workers’ rights activists across the continent. ASWA  is also building the profile of these activists doing commendable work but are often not highlighted. Most are ASWA members, while others are emerging activists.


Batte Shamilah is the founder of Organisation for Gender Empowerment and Rights Advocacy (OGERA) and the National Coordinator of the Uganda Network for Sex Worker Organisations (UNESO). She talks about her work.

How did you become involved with sex worker rights activism? What issues or people inspired you?

As a sex worker, it is my obligation to protect my work. Besides that, I could not just stand and watch my fellow sex workers face all sorts of violations, mainly because they could not access health information and education, treatment and legal representation. All these inspired me to come out and be a voice for the voiceless.

Which countries and/or regions are you focused on in terms of mobilising support for the work that you do?

I don’t have a specific area of focus in terms of mobilising support for the work I do, but I ensure that what I get into does not violate my rights, interfere with my work or beliefs as a sex worker.

What organisations are you currently involved in and what are the priority areas that these organisations work in? Tell us a bit about your activism/work specifically.

I am the Founder and Executive Director of Organisation for Gender Empowerment and Rights Advocacy, which is a registered women sex worker-led organisation that works for the betterment of lesbians, bisexual and transgender women, Women Who have Sex with Women and refugee sex workers living and working in Uganda.

I also work as the Coordinator of Uganda Network for Sex Worker Organisations (UNESO), an umbrella body for sex worker movement in Uganda.

In both organisations, my role is to ensure the health and human rights of sex workers in Uganda are respected regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, race or nationality.

What were the biggest events you have worked on or challenges you have faced in the past?

For so many years in Uganda, sex work was believed to be for only heterosexual women. This is because female sex workers are usually not questioned about their sexual orientation because of the assumption that they all identify as heterosexuals. The needs of refugee sex workers were also ignored. This was a gap in the sex worker movement because some groups were not fully represented due to different perceptions in relation to intersectional ties. I was able to fill this gap in 2013 by founding OGERA Uganda, which is a sex worker led organisation that specifically addresses the health and legal needs of LBT/WSW/Refugee sex workers living and working in Uganda.

As the UNESO Coordinator, I have ensured unity within the movement in Uganda after organising a successful conflict resolution meeting that brought together all sex worker leaders to iron out issues that were hindering us from working as a team. I have also been key in recognising and defending the rights of all sex workers despite their sexual orientation and gender identity so as to fit in the sex worker movement.

What do you think will be the biggest challenges for your organisation/sex workers in your country in the future?

The biggest challenge now is criminalisation of sex work, which is considered immoral and not recognised as work in Uganda. The existing punitive laws that don’t acknowledge our differences based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Uganda fuel and will continue to encourage stigma and discrimination leading to gross violations of sex workers’ rights.

Do you have one message for the sex worker rights movement? Or one message for people outside of the movement?

Let’s work together as sex workers to create a bigger voice. However, we should respect, embrace and recognise diversity within the sex worker movement.

How do you carry out your activism that is what forms of social media and/or strategies do you use? (Protests, social media and legislation, among others) to further the cause you advocate for?

I use Facebook, Twitter and other platforms available such as advocacy campaigns, press conferences, lobbying, networking, collaborations, partnerships, TV and radio talk shows.

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