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Meeting sex workers in their sanctuaries

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By Francis Tayanjah-Phiri:

FACE SEVERAL CHALLENGES—Sex workers

Asiyatu claims to be 21, but some of her friends testify she is 16. Two years ago, before she ventured into sex work, she gave birth to a baby girl.

“The man, who impregnated me when I was young, in my rural village in Zomba, ditched me afterwards. He married another woman and decided against supporting me,” Asiyatu says.

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Afterwards, she moved to Blantyre to work in a restaurant. Her employer could pay her K300 or K500 a day, an amount she says was too little to support her and her daughter.

She and some of her friends quit the restaurant job and ventured into sex work in Salima. A bar owner in the lakeshore district recruited them and gave them a room each to stay for free in exchange of “services to customers”.

“Everything seemed perfect. We had free lodging, and I could get three to five men a day, making up to K7,000. The bar owner later changed tune and demanded that we should be paying K500 a night,” Asiyatu explains.

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The development pushed her and her colleagues out of the place, onto the streets where they would line up for night customers.

And Amina, just like Asiyatu, has a story.

“My aunt’s husband made me pregnant when I was 15. He threatened to kill me if I dared disclose that he was responsible for my pregnancy. He said he would divorce my aunt and kill my mother using magic. That is how I ended up as a sex worker,” Amina says.

She moves from one fishing village to another in search of customers.

Our snap surveys have revealed that some girls venture into prostitution due to peer pressure, others after divorcing at young ages. Some venture into the oldest profession after the deaths of their husbands.

All of them are in search of ways to survive.

“There are times that we charge up to K3,000 depending on the profile of the customer. But business is not always good, so some times we go for lower rates so that we can buy food and pay our daily rentals,” says Edna, another sex worker in the same situation as Asiyatu.

Statistics by Family Planning Association of Malawi (Fpam) indicate that there are around 2,000 sex workers in Salima District.

This population flactuates depending on several factors including migration to other areas which are believed to be more economically viable during a particular period.

But, wherever they are, sex workers are exposed to various dangers such as contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and physical abuses.

But for Asiyatu and her colleagues in Salima, a project which Fpam is implementing there is minimising the problems.

Through the project, Fpam is linking sex workers to health services, including tracking those that are on antiretroviral therapy so that they do not default on their treatment.

The strict adherence to treatment prescriptions ensures that the sex workers do not transmit the virus to those they sleep with.

BARNABA—We provide a full package

“Through this initiative, we provide a full package to sex workers. For instance, we provide STI screening and treatment, HIV testing and counselling and referring for treatment those diagnosed with the virus, among other things,” says Rector Barnaba, Fpam District Manager for Salima.

Under the initiative, Fpam also uses peer educators and outreach workers who connect with sex workers wherever they are found: in bars, homes and streets.

They convene at selected places called hotspots where they conduct moonlight clinics during which the mentioned services are provided.

“Each and every facility is conducted close to where the ladies operate from. We work with health workers from district hospitals and health centres. Everything is confidential.

“Sex workers move a lot, from one place to another; thus we advise them to always move with their health passbooks which have their health records so that they do not default if they are on treatment. We use codes, not actual names, for purposes of confidentiality,” Barnaba says.

He adds that the initiative is working as more sex workers are coming forward to access the offered services.

According to Barnaba, confidentiality is important because it allows for respect of all sex workers who seek sexual and reproductive health services.

“They are human beings and must be treated with dignity. The health workers who are part of the initiative counsel the ladies and test them for STIs and HIV and Aids,” he says.

Because of peer mentoring, those two test positive easily understand that if they are placed on treatment, they would live healthy lives.

This has also reduced treatment defaults, according to Barnaba.

He also discloses that Fpam, together with the police, take off the streets and bars underage girls who venture into sex work.

“We tell bar owners, sex workers and other stakeholders that children should not be found at drinking places and that sex workers should not raise children around bars. Of course, there are isolated cases where underage children continue to be involved in sex work, but we are striving to deal with all the problems,” he says.

The project’s outreach workers, Joana Chorwe and Pemphero Chalunda, say their approach has also helped several sex workers to go for cervical cancer screening.

On his part, Station Officer for Kamuzu Road Police Unit, Bob Kabango, says the initiative has also helped in reducing security challenges which sex workers face.

“Just recently, we arrested a man who assaulted a sex worker and demanded sex without protection. We urge the sex workers to report any cases of abuse to the police,” he says.

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