EPHRAIM KEORENG investigates the life of a sex worker and finds a society living in denial, as stigma and discrimination and violence is used against sex workers, making the war against HIV/AIDS a Herculean task.
After offering her ‘services’ to the truck driver, she asked for payment. But he told her to come the next morning and gave her his driver’s licence as surety. This was to demonstrate to her that he will not go anywhere during the night. However, in the morning she realised it was an expired licence and worse the truck driver did not want to pay.
“He claimed that he didn’t know her and had never seen her. The woman told him that if he doesn’t pay then she will ensure he does not drive away. She stood in front of the truck to block him. But he told him that if she doesn’t move, he will run her over. She was adamant and stood her ground, and the next thing the man hit her with the truck,” reveals Josephine Piet, a Tebelopele counsellor in Kasane.
Being a sex worker is one of the toughest jobs in the world. On one side they have to contend with an unrepentant government that sees evil in their work. Then there are members of the society, where you have men and the church who view sex work as social deviance. Interestingly, the people who procure these ‘evil’ services are from within the society - men and women - who have families, respectable members of the society among others. In some cases, men of the cloth have also been found to be buying commodified sex. Since they are the ones who stand out, especially at night to sell their ‘services’, they have become targets of violence, taunts, robbery and all other bad things and no one seems interested in helping them.
Sex workers cannot report abusive clients or those that refuse to pay for services rendered. If they report to the police, chances are the sex workers will end up jailed for engaging in the illicit trade. Even worse, they are exposed to HIV/AIDS infection.
Speaking on the side-lines of a US Embassy-organised meeting last week to discuss global health issues under the theme, ‘Sustainability and progress in achieving an AIDS-free generation’ in Maun, Piet - a community activist who has been working on a Tebelopele project to reach an estimated 1 500 female sex workers and provide them HIV/STI prevention and psycho-social support services - said at times sex workers engage in unprotected sex for a mere P400.
This for them is a lot of money as they charge lower than that for protected sex. On a bad day, a ‘quickie’ fetches P50, but it would go up to P100 on a rainy day, thus a month-end when truck drivers and others are loaded. For a whole night, sex workers charge up to P300. Piet says they warn sex workers against the dangers of engaging in unprotected sex.
“We have pleaded with them to take the ‘no condom more money’ sex out of their menu, but some say they badly need the money and if clients are willing to pay, so be it,” she says.
The profile of a sex worker is a complex one. They are mostly lowly educated. Most of the sex workers in Kasane are Junior Certificate School dropouts. Some used to work at shops and salons. Mostly they operate in the open, thus standing by the road to attract clients. There is another group of people that is made up of women who are sought after by their clients. They are parents and wives. Through a phone call, a mother will slip out of her house and go and meet her client at an agreed rendezvous. Then there are people who work decent day jobs in government and the private sector. Since they would not want to attract the attention of the Kasane community, some of them are said to have an arrangement with house owners in the Kazungula side of Zambia where they can easily render their services to truck drivers away from scrutiny.
Piet says through psycho-social support groups they are trying to help sex workers operating in the Kasane area and its environs.
“We screen them. If they have STI (Sexually Transmitted Infections), we refer them to Botswana Family Welfare Association where they are given free health services,” she reveals.
“Most of the sex workers say they do not want to stop working there. Bare ga ba bate go togela tiro, they want to be protected/safe,” says Irene Ramatala, a US employee who deals with victims gender-based violence.
Female sex workers at high risk of HIV infection
A survey by the Botswana government presented last year, titled, ‘2012 Mapping, Size Estimation & Behavioural and Biological Surveillance Survey (BBSS) of HIV/STI Among Select High-Risk Sub-Populations in Botswana,’ gives a clear picture of the state of sex workers in Botswana.
The BBSS survey shows female sex workers as the most affected group or subpopulation by HIV in Botswana, with an estimated population size of 4,000 in the three districts and a very high HIV prevalence (61.9%) and incidence (12.5%).
Most sex workers say they find clients in bars and other drinking spots, and they often had a different paying sex partner every night.
“They reported that many clients have wives and families, so these clients serve as a bridge between FSWs and the general population. Although FSWs (Female Sex Workers) reported a widespread understanding of the importance of condom use in HIV prevention, they faced several obstacles to consistent condom use. These included clients paying more not to use condoms, clients forcing the FSWs not to use condoms, and regular experiences with condoms breaking. The prevalence of STIs was high among FSWs, repeat infections were common, and HIV prevalence escalated rapidly after each year of additional sex work,” says the report in part.
It paints a harrowing picture, showing that most female sex workers see themselves at high risk of HIV while a considerable proportion know their HIV status. Those who test HIV positive would only consistently use a condom with spouses or live-in partners while they may throw caution to the wind and oblige the client in any way he or she wants.
”Only a minority of HIV positive FSWs reported receiving antiretroviral therapy. Excessive alcohol use was also common, which could have compounded risk behaviours. Results of the BBSS also showed that FSWs receive HIV information from a variety of sources. However, an effective response to preventing HIV Transmission among this subpopulation needs to go beyond information dissemination and individual‐level interventions. FSWs should be viewed within a broader risk environment that includes their boyfriends, clients, health care providers, peers, and focuses on access to services and commodities. Only by creating a more supportive environment for safer sexual decision-making will the knowledge that FSWs already have about HIV and AIDS result in reduced HIV transmission among this group and help reduce the burden of HIV among the general population in Botswana,” reads the report.
Inside the sex trade
Tosh Legoreng is a founder and director of Sisonke, a national organisation run by sex workers for sex workers in Botswana.
She says there are various reasons why people engage in sex work. A needs assessment they conducted recently shows that a lot of sex workers were not forced into sex work and they are happy with their profession.
“There is lack of employment opportunities in the mainstream field. Despite high levels of economic growth over the past two decades, poverty and inequality persist in Botswana and unemployment is high,” she says.
Poverty also plays a role. Other factors that have seen women engaging in sex work are low level of education and peer pressure.
She says previous studies conducted on sex work have not specifically interrogated health as a right for sex workers, and how a human rights perspective can be mainstreamed in the response to HIV/AIDS.
‘”Sex work is broadly defined as the exchange of money or goods for sexual services, either regularly or occasionally, involving female, male, and transgender. Most of the sex workers are not learned to secure good jobs. Therefore, lack of education limits opportunities of getting a job in formal or mainstream sector is one of the reasons. Some of the sex workers indicate that they do not want to work for anybody and they believe they can only be their own bosses if they use what they have, which is their body,” she says.
Legoreng says there is a lot of what she refers to as ‘easy money’ in sex work than mainstream jobs where you have to wait for a month-end to get paid, while in sex work you can have money every hour.
The life of a sex worker
One sex worker in Gaborone tells a heartrending story. She was an orphan, left under the care of her aunt, who verbally abused her.
“I failed my junior secondary school examinations, and I had a child. My aunt started calling me names and said I’m a dog. She said I was going to die of HIV like my mother. I left home and started sex work to take care of myself and child.”
She reveals that people living with HIV/AIDS who are also sex workers are sometimes chased away by nurses, which makes access to health care facilities problematic.
“There is also a tendency of nurses to divulge SW’s HIV status in public. We feel nurses openly talk about our status as a way of trying to chastise us as sex workers. Assertions from health care service providers such as “Oa boa a tile. O bone gore o bodile jang? (She has come again. Have you seen how rotten her genitals are?), and “o tsenwa ke STI mo AIDS-ing e kana dicondom di le teng (You contract an STI in the wake of AIDS pandemic even when condoms are available),” she says.
Met with this hostile treatment, it is certainly difficult for sex workers to access health care services.
Laws prohibiting sex work
Botswana laws criminalises sex work through sections 155 and 154 of the Botswana Penal Code that carry severe sanctions in relation to solicitation, knowingly living on the earnings of prostitution, procuring a person for prostitution, brothel keeping and restrictions against loitering . On the basis of these sections, sex workers are stigmatised and discriminated against, raped, beaten, and arrested indiscriminately.
“As a result of criminalisation, sex workers are denied access to HIV services, face stigma and discrimination in health facilities; limited access to factual information on HIV prevention and on issues around multiple-concurrent partnerships; limited HIV surveillance studies among the groups; experience extortion and violence in the hands of both service providers and the general public; have limited access to appropriate prevention methods such as condoms and lubricants,” says Legoreng.
In Botswana stigma and discrimination against sex workers is institutionalised by unsafe legal and cultural environment creating unsafe conditions that continually put sex workers at risk of HIV infection, she relates. Criminalisation of sex work contributes to an environment in which, violence against sex workers is tolerated, leaving them less likely to be protected from it.
“Many sex workers do not have information about their rights. As a result, they are often reluctant to report incidences of rape, attempted (or actual) murder, beatings, molestation or sexual assault to the authorities. Sex workers also find it difficult to negotiate safer sex with intimate partners and clients in the context of physical and sexual violence perpetrated by some of them,” she says.
However, not all is lost as there are people like Assistant Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, Botlogile Tshireletso, who are championing the cause of sex workers at a higher level in Parliament. Tshireletso has been vociferous on this matter and also on legalisation of abortion among others. This has given sex workers a gleam of hope that perhaps government will decriminalise sex work.
Cindy Kelemi, BONELA director, has noticed that members of the society and the police persecute sex workers. She says they once received a case in which some police officers had arrested sex workers and went on to search them. They then confiscated the condoms they found them carrying. This puts sex workers at risk, as they may now engage in unprotected sex as they are ‘unarmed’. She also says that the health care system should cater for sex workers so that they can be assisted especially in the monitoring and evaluation of STi-Sexually Transmitted infections.
“There is a contact slip that is given so that you can bring your partner for assessment. But how does a sex worker do that? It is not easy tracing their clients and you can imagine how impossible it would be to bring them to the clinic,” she says.
What the police say
Police spokesperson, Senior Superintendent Near Bagali, says they deal with the law and will not bend it to accommodate any offender. “We do what it prescribes. We charge them with idling and disorderly. However I am not aware of a case where police officers confiscated sex workers’ condoms,” he says.