‘Sex work is not work’

Another sex worker

Some women and girls engage in sex work recount to our reporter THOMAS KACHERE the dehumanising conditions that those in the world’s oldest profession are subjected to. They say that in an ideal situation, the trade gravely degrades the values of being a human being.

Malawi has more than 20,000 women and girls who are engaged in sex work, according to the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.

Often, the voices of these people are not heard. Some of them harbour pain and misery in their hearts, wishing they could have a way of speaking out about what they go through.


They even go through physical pain, which seeps away with time or remains etched on their bodies for eternity.

One of them is a 29-year-old woman we will disguise as Jessie, who says she will never forget the day she lost her front teeth in a scuffle that resulted in her being pushed out of a moving vehicle.

Jessie says she was forced into sex work after she failed to provide for her necessities and those of her 12-year-old son.


Her husband succumbed to tuberculosis, leaving the widow alone with her son who solely depends on her for survival.

“Sex work is painful. No one ventures into that kind of work out of their own will. In fact, sex work is not work at all; it is torture.

“You go out with a man you don’t know anything about, after agreeing on the amount, he will give you, only for him to turn around and refuse to pay up or simply pay an amount that is smaller than what you agreed,” Jessie says.

She indicated her willingness to exit sex work for the sake of her dignity.

Susan was a school-going girl when she was reportedly forced into prostitution to help her family with their daily needs.

She once got pregnant and gave birth to a child whose father denied responsibility.

Her mother had no means of generating income to support Susan and her baby, so the girl decided to engage in sex work.

“My parents got separated when I was young. So, when I was growing up, my mother could not manage to provide for our needs due to old age, so all the responsibilities fell on my head. That forced me into sex work.

“I have gone through torture in this trade. I could be picked up by a man who paid money enough for me to sleep with him alone. After entering his house, I would be forced to sleep with his friends too for money paid for one person,” Susan recalls.

She claims that she is aware of other girls and women involved in sex work who got severely harmed or even killed by their clients in the course of their work.

Susan has given up and wants to try “real work” from where she can earn something for her survival. She is willing to take up any ‘dignified’ business that can come her way.

Martha, 27, has three children who stay with her mother while she is engaged in sex work to support the family.

She says her mother does not engage in any economic activity from which she can sufficiently provide for the children.

“So I decided to engage in this kind of work because I had nowhere to go. It is tough. Sometimes we get beaten or not given money after sleeping with a man or a group of men.

“I had a bitter experience one night when two foreign nationals took me to their apartment where the agreement was that I should sleep with only one of them. I was forced to serve three people. I was not given any additional money,” Martha says.

She believes economically empowering women and girls in sex trade is one way of getting them out of the business described by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as one of the many forms of modern-day slavery.

ILO, the United Nations agency whose mandate is to advance social and economic justice through setting international labour standards, estimates that sex workers still support between five and eight other people with their earnings.

Martha, Susan and Jessie feel sorry that they are falling in this category.

“There are other women and girls who I know are into sex work after fleeing domestic abuse or child marriage. They feel they must be free and able to determine what can happen with their bodies,” Susan says.

In Malawi, there are projects that target the less-privileged so that they can recover from their extreme poverty.

Many of these projects apparently do not reach women and girls in sex trade—key populations whose work was described by Marxist revolutionary and pan-Africanist Thomas Sankara, who served as president of Burkina Faso, as “nothing but the microcosm of a society where exploitation is a general rule”.

Caleb Ng’ombo, Executive Director of People Saving Girls at Risk, wants girls and women in sex work to abandon their trade and engage in other income-generating activities.

“We don’t believe there is such a thing as sex work. Prostitution is a form of sexual exploitation. We know that women and girls who venture into sex work are forced into the trade by circumstances that are often beyond their control. Our aim is to provide necessary exit strategies,” Ng’ombo says.

On his part, Executive Director of the Coalition Abolition Prostitution, Jonathan Machler, says the organisation is working with 35 grassroots organisations in 27 countries including Malawi to get survivors of sexual exploitation “back to normal life”.

Machler says last year, the coalition assisted over 17,000 survivors of prostitution.

Martha, Susan and Jessie wish they were part of sex workers whose stories are changing or have changed.

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