I have had ‘interactions’ with female sex workers, mostly hostile ones, in toilets of bars and dance floors of nightclubs where they want to exert their authority, to let me know that ‘this’ is their territory.
I admit I have often considered myself far superior to them, looked down upon them, but now I realise I cannot pass judgement for I know nothing about the reasons why they choose this occupation.
Who knows, some of them dream to get some money some day and start a small business. And I certainly know a few who have been lucky enough to score the right man! I also realise that their arrogant disposition is more for their safety (from other sex workers, clients, police) and to ward off competition.
Sex work is a very dangerous occupation. There are risks of violence, arrest, and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and Aids.
Counting the Uncatchables, a study by Family Planning Association of Malawi in 2011, reports 20 000 sex workers in Malawi. They found that sex workers experience violence and abuse. Physical violence was ranked the highest abusive experience by 50 percent of the women followed by rape, emotional abuse and arbitrary arrests.
Sex workers around the world say the greatest threat to their health and human rights is the law that makes it impossible to find safe places to work and prevents them from having the same protections as other workers and other citizens.
Last year, 14 prostitutes in Malawi, who were arrested and forcibly tested for HIV against their consent, sued the government for ‘unfair action and violating their privacy’.
Advocates for sex workers are lobbying for equal rights for sex workers, improving sex workers’ access to antiretroviral therapy, community-empowerment programmes, peer education, condom distribution and more accessible clinical services for sexually transmitted infections.
So, I was really happy to read reports in November that sex workers in Malawi have formed an alliance. Regardless of their occupation, they should not be relegated to second-class citizens. Hopefully, this alliance will advocate for better prevention and care services for these women (and maybe men?).
I came across a touching photographic depiction of the everyday lives of sex workers, by day—women who wear their chintenjes, cook, clean and care for their children and at night dress in the skimpy clothes to make money for themselves and their families.
Sex work is illegal in Malawi, but it is widespread and laws prohibiting it are rarely enforced. If we were to legalise it, would it reduce HIV and Aids?