Two years ago, Rose abandoned her home in a vast village on the outskirts of Balaka Town.
The destination was a weird place—a tiny poorly ventilated semidetached bedsitter in a squalid neighbourhood at the town centre.
She joined other girls, who are often scantily clad particularly at night and pose outside entertainment clubs to beckon passers-by into their stuffy rooms.
“Honestly, I don’t really understand why I chose this trade,” Rose admits, a sheepish smile flitting across her petite face.
Like many other girls, the now-16-year-old nurtured lofty aspirations. She wanted to eventually get out of her parents’ care, be self-reliant and, probably, find love.
She ended up joining the world’s oldest profession, apparently because an older woman in her village attempted to teach her witchcraft.
Rose claims that, after she resisted the ‘training’, she was mentally disturbed and decided to bolt to Balaka Town.
Laws of Malawi proscribe accusing someone of practising witchcraft.
Today, every night, Rose joins others in sex work and freely raffle themselves off to all manner of men.
Her colleagues have various stories for choosing this kind of trade, some even charging it just came into their minds that they should venture into such risky toil.
“It would be a total lie if I cited poverty as the reason for venturing into this trade. My parents are not poor at all,” a girl, who only identifies herself as Lisa, says.
She concedes she joined prostitution out of peer pressure. Seeing young girls sneaking into dark rooms with men in tow attracted her attention.
And, at 17, she is already nursing a one-year-old baby boy whose father she cannot remember.
In her trade, identities of clients are less important.
“If I sleep with more than five men in a day, it would not be possible to commit to memory their identities. After all, after we are done, everything ends there,” Lisa says, casually stroking her baby’s fluffy hair.
Both Rose and Lisa are adamant in their resolve not to ever think about returning to school.
They openly state that sex work is part of their lives and that, therefore, it would be difficult to abandon it even after being approached by several people.
So organisations working in promoting the rights of key populations seek out these girls, mentor them about staying safe in their trade and sensitise them to their rights.
The organisations also give the girls condoms and other products which help them to stave off HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
“Organisations such as Positive Steps help some of us to easily access our medication. They also engage us frequently on how we can protect our clients as we continue living positively,” twenty-year-old Joyce says.
So, in these girls’ squalid neighbourhood, not all is lost.
While it is true that girls, more than boys, face several challenges in their lives owing to poverty, cultural norms, gender-based violence and early marriages, Rose, Lisa and Joyce insist they have the necessary support in sex work.
“Of course, risks will always be there in this trade because you sometimes deal with total strangers. But we have our ways of ensuring we are always safe,” Joyce says, sitting down on a small bench waving a loop of condoms in the air.
She claims she is worried that more and more underage girls in the Southern Region district are joining prostitution, without “this serious problem” optimally attracting the attention of authorities.
Apparently, as agriculture production dwindles in Balaka, driving households into poverty, more girls are also abandoning their homes for sex work.
According to Positive Steps, the district has over 420 adult sex workers and over 100 underage sex workers.
“Seventy-five percent of the adult sex workers are on anti-retroviral therapy while 75 percent of underage sex workers have sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancies,” the organisation’s executive director Clement Chiwala says.
He indicates that it was initially very difficult to reach the sex workers until his organisation facilitated the formation of an association through which it assists them.
Apparently, there are sex workers as young as 10 in the district’s various hotspots.
“We heard a lot of stories about why they are doing that. Some say it is because of poverty while others say it is just due to peer pressure,” Chiwala says.
He also discloses that some underage sex workers who returned to their homes after being engaged by Positive Steps are back into the trade but have just changed locations.
He vows to continue tracking them and “bring them to reason again”
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. He believes that quality reporting is critical in bringing positive change in communities. Alick is the Southern Africa Development Community journalist of the year (2020) in the television category. Follow him on Twitter @aponje