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No cash out: Commercial sex workers’ predicament

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It is a monster of deceit, Lunzu Trading Centre quiet and relatively modest during the day, it sheds its innocence at night.

On a typical day, minibus operators, vendors, taxi drivers, telephone bureau operators and airtime sellers, students from Lunzu Primary and Secondary School, uniformed police officers, kabaza (bicycle taxi) operators, minibus touts, among others, go about their daily routines: innocent, law abiding and self-engaged.

It is a typical Lunzu night that is the problem, if not the subject of the deceit. Sex workers, who sleep during the day, come alive, ready to conquer another night and men’s pockets.

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Between 1997 and 2005, according to resident Michael Sande Tambala, Lunzu was a bustling centre both during the day and at night because the market was at its peak, buoyed, as it were, by a second hand clothes market rivalled by no other [in Blantyre] at the time.

“And, again, we had up-market drinking joints which made night life no different from daytime, in the sense that people could drive from far and wide just to spend their time at Lunzu Trading Centre.

“Actually, this is the time I can describe as ‘Lunzu’s darkest hour’ because we lost many people, productive citizens for that matter, to HIV and Aids. I think excitement was to blame for many of the preventable deaths. Today, I cry because I find that Lunzu Trading Centre is a shadow of its former self,” Tambala says.

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He is a kabaza bicycle operator, taking people to as far as Maleule on his kabaza— a highly decorated bicycle, replete with a number plate. It has so many messages too, all in vernacular language.

Two messages, Ululu amaumva ndi otsala and Mwana ndi pa liwombo draw my attention. They are stories for another day.

The calmness of the day deceives the new-comer and makes it appear as if Lunzu is as orderly during the day as it is during the night. Wrong.

The old Lunzu—noisy, alive and famous— still comes back at night. For, while some of the practices that characterised the Lunzu of old no longer take centre-stage, some habits surely die hard.

Take commercial sex work, for instance. More than the second hands clothes’ market and lively drinking joints that made Lunzu a darling to many then, it was the commercial sex workers who were the real magnet.

And, even after over 12 years, commercial sex workers have not changed. Indeed, their trade has been given a new impetus: The banning of rogue and vagabond on January 10 this year. They can roam the streets freely. For newcomers, here is a reminder, courtesy of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre:

“On Tuesday 10 January 2017, in the case of Gwanda v State, a three-member bench of the Malawi High Court declared section 184 (1)(c) of the Penal Code unconstitutional and invalid.

“Section 184 (1)(c) of the Penal Code provides that “every person found in or upon or near any premises or in any road or highway or any place adjacent thereto or in any public place at such time and under such circumstances as to lead to the conclusion that such person is there for an illegal or disorderly purpose, is deemed a rogue and vagabond. The offence of being a rogue and vagabond dates back to the English Vagrancy Act of 1824 and exists in similar wording in the Penal Codes of many former British colonies, including Mauritius, Nigeria, Gambia, Zambia, Uganda, Botswana, Seychelles and Tanzania.

“The applicant in the case was a street vendor by trade who was arrested on his way to sell plastic bags. The Court held that section 184 (1) (c) of the Penal Code and its application violated the applicant’s constitutional right to dignity because it gave too much discretion to law enforcers and because the right to be presumed innocent was negated. The Court further held that the applicant’s right to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment was violated in that he was arrested on unsubstantiated grounds and kept in custody for three days, an experience which was demeaning, traumatising and humiliating. The Court held that the application of section 184 (1) (c) produces disproportionate results in many cases with respect to marginalised groups.

“It is a significant step to have a court in the region declare these outdated provisions unconstitutional. The Court was emphatic that the rights to dignity and freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment are violated when individuals are arbitrarily arrested and detained in the absence of any offence having been committed” said Anneke Meerkotter from the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, which supported the case.

“Petty offences such as being a rogue and vagabond are frequently applied in violation of criminal procedure rules and constitutional rights. This judgment will set the tone for further advocacy and litigation against laws which criminalise the poor.”

“It is hoped that the Court’s ruling will encourage the police to follow due process and will reduce the impact these offences have on overcrowding in places of detention” said Victor Mhango from CHREAA. “The judgment provides an opportunity for the police to properly evaluate their crime prevention measures to ensure that they serve their purpose and do not violate human rights.”

“The litigation was preceded by research on the arbitrary enforcement of the offence and ongoing advocacy in favour of its repeal. Civil society organisations in Malawi and regionally are increasingly advocating for the decriminalisation and declassification of petty offences which have a disproportionate negative impact on poor and marginalised groups in society.”

New lease of life

Kalambode (not real name), one of the commercial sex workers at Lunzu Trading Centre, said, when I met her at Lunzu ADD offices in late April this year, that her income has somewhat improved since the High Court made the ruling.

“In the past, police officers could arrest us and demand that we sleep with them so that they could release us. It was either you pay them something or you sleep with them. That is no longer the case,” said Kalambode, who has been in the trade for 10 years.

Surprisingly, there are other commercial sex workers who want to quit the trade, one of them being 37-year-old Gulumamina* [not real name].

“To be a commercial sex worker is to court trouble. We endure cool weather. Some men abuse us. I want to quit,” Gulumamina said.

She says, ever since she left her home district in Nsanje for Blantyre 12 years ago, her life has been that of hand-to-mouth.

“There are some men who force themselves on you, beat you up and leave you with nothing. And, then, there are nights when you earn money, and others when you do not. Life becomes difficult during those nights,” she said.

“I want to quit and do something that will benefit me. A business venture is a good thing,” she added.

Gulumamina is not the only one who wants to quit. A horde of other women at Lunzu Trading Centre say the same thing, saying they are tired of being used, abused and used again.

Recently, when Peoples Federation for National Peace and Development (Pefenap)—a registered non-governmental organisation working in the areas of human rights, security, agriculture, health and good governance— organised a meeting aimed at mapping the way forward, the women sounded as tired of commercial sex work as they were consistent in their need to find alternative means of generating income.

Pefenap is implementing a project titled ‘Expanding and Increasing Community Based Testing and Treatment’, thanks to the US Embassy which, through the President’s Emergency Programme Fund for Relief, has decided to reach out to marginalised communities in Lunzu and other locations in Blantyre.

“We are touched that the women want to find alternative means of generating income. They also want things such as balls so that they can play netball, as well as start-up capital. I think that’s a good starting point.

“On our part, we will provide balls using our own funds. However, we cannot help on start-up capital right now because this is not part of our planned activities in the project. But we will, surely, look into it. We know that the women are into this [commercial sex work] because they were forced by circumstances, hence most of them have expressed willingness to change,” Chaka said.

Universal trade?

Increasing uptake of HIV testing and treatment among key populations like sex workers is key to achieving 90:90:90 World Health Organisation targets, aimed at reducing cases of infection, among others.

Pefenap, in partnership with Malawi Aids Counselling and Resource Organisation and the District Health Office, wants to increase testing and treatment among sex workers by carrying out community-based HIV testing and treatment in Makata, Chirimba and Lunzu townships and locations, reportedly some of the HIV and Aids hot spots in Blantyre.

But, then, intention is one thing, and action quite another.

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