A group of former sex workers in Mangochi are eager to be counted for making a difference in HIV and Aids. Research shows that, with a 21 percent HIV prevalence rate, the district is one of the hardest hit areas in the country. The country’s prevalence rate currently stands at 12 percent.
For them, the battle against the pandemic cannot be won if sex workers are ignored. They feel they have a role to play and that they should not be ignored.
Although the national HIV prevalence rate has stabilised in recent years, researchers have attributed the Mangochi phenomenon to the fishing business happening along Lake Malawi. Poverty and cultural practices come into the fray, too.
“However, the issue of clandestine migration to South Africa, said to be a booming economic activity in Mangochi, tends to be overlooked despite being at the centre of the socio-economic life of the district,” observes James Kuchilala, a secondary school teacher in history in the district.
Kuchilala, who is also a social researcher, says there is need to study the extent to which the migration to South Africa by men, who leave their wives behind, has contributed towards the spread of the virus in Mangochi as a district.
“We need to find out why women are highly infected as compared to men,” he added.
Noting the gap, some former sex workers got together to form Tuwapochere Women’s Group. With only 10 members, eight of whom are living positively with the virus, the group is fast growing into a force to be reckoned with when it comes to advocacy in the district.
Behind its success is 40-year-old Deliya Gawanani who forms the main tie that binds the group together. She says that the group should never be underrated in the fight.
“We may not be experts, but we believe we can still play a role. In fact, as former sex workers, we know better and this is why we want to raise awareness across the district,” she said.
Among other areas, the group has made strides in bridging the gap between the clergy and their faithful. Unlike in the past, issues of reproductive health can now be discussed in churches and mosques. But now, women are leading in the discussions—a thing which was widely regarded a taboo in many religious circles across the district.
They are also restoring hope to the infected, affected and afflicted with the message: ‘Being infected is not a death sentence!’
Tuwapochere Women’s Group runs a loan and savings initiative where each member contributes K200 every Wednesday when they meet to strategise and review its operations. The little they have contributed over time has enabled them to provide small loans to members with which some have established small-scale businesses.
For 35-year-old Alice Chuma from Mtalimanja Village in the district, the initiative could not have come at a better time than when she was roped into the group. Today, she proudly operates a hairdressing salon at Mangochi Market.
“I realised that whatever I was getting through sex work was not profitable, neither was it sustainable. It was a hand-to-mouth way of life. But today, I am convinced that I can reach greater heights through my business,” says Chuma, who is living positively with the virus.
The bond that runs through the group does not end on meeting days as it has been manifested in various areas. Alice’s salon does not only share its roof with fellow member Naomi Kumwenda’s; the two even share clients when one is overwhelmed.
One member still sought solace in the shadows of her former trade.
Marriam June, 37, also from Mtalimanja Village, operates a beer business at the district’s central tavern.
Asked if she is ever tempted to get back into sex work as she runs her business in the beer halls, Marriam says that part of her life is history.
“To me, money is not a motivation anymore. A free mind is what I feel is vital in life and as long as I’m earning enough for myself, I should be fine. I’m not going back to sex work,” she says.
Marriam, Alice and Naomi take time to counsel their respective clients about the dangers of HIV and Aids. They also advocate voluntary medical counselling and testing.
Although the group has made a positive impact in the lives of its members and the community, Gawanani wishes they could reach out to more people in the rural areas.
“The problem is funding. I am sure we can make a positive impact not only in Mangochi but even at national level as well,” she said.
Noting such a need gap, the Social Economic Enhancement and Enterprise Development (Seeed) Malawi, a Mangochi based non-governmental organisation, says it will support the women.
According to its country director Aggrey Mfune, Seeed Malawi also implements other interventions in the district which he says have already started bearing fruits.
Mfune hailed Tuwapochere Women’s’ Group initiative, saying his organisation is trying to adopt and herald the same in several of the support groups it works with.