By Kandani Ngwira:
Sex workers face many perils in their line of work. So when an opportunity to leave this kind of job presented itself, Jenifer and her friends did not think twice.
Jennifer, 25, says she has been turning up as a sex worker since 2018. The desperate need to provide for her son pushed her into the trade.
“I was married and my husband and I moved to stay in South Africa. In 2018, he sent me back home because life there became tough due to xenophobia.
“Since I returned home, he has never sent me and my son any help. So, I had to search for food and money for paying rentals,” Jennifer says.
Her friend Judith has been in the business since she was 17 because she disagreed with her parents and moved out to be on her own. Her friends introduced her to sex work for her survival.
“Sex business is a trap and very difficult to stop. In my case, I have two children aged six and nine. I need to feed these children so I end up going back to the streets every night to find money for raising my kids,” Judith says.
She reveals that there are moments she is forced to sleep with four men after being paid by one of them.
Sometimes, her clients refuse to pay for her services or pay less than what they initially agreed.
“Sometimes, you have customers who refuse to wear condoms but you still have to sleep with them because you need money. This is very risky work,” she says.
After she and other sex workers heard that a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) was offering support to women and girls involved in forced labour or victims of human trafficking, they decided to give it a try.
“Selling my body to survive makes me feel less a person. So when I heard that People Saving Girls at Risk [PSGR] had a programme to empower women with vocational skills such as tailoring and hairdressing, I decided to jump at the opportunity,” Judith says.
Since July, Jenifer and 19 other young women from Blantyre have been participating in the training which runs up to next month.
Jenifer, who is drilled in hairdressing, has already started offering services in their neighbourhood and doing legitimate business in the process.
“I am very proud of myself because I am able to earn income without degrading my body. People in my community used to treat me as an outcast but now they respect me. Even at home, my relatives now respect me since I no longer engage in sex work,” she says.
Jenifer hopes to use income from the hairdressing business to raise her child ‘properly’.
Judith says she hopes her transformation, which she is confident will be ultimate once she is completely out of sex work, can be a lesson to her friends who take the trade as all they can do forever to survive.
She wants to see government supporting initiatives that are pulling women and young girls out of sex work and economically empowering them.
PSGR Executive Director Caleb Ng’ombo says survivors of human trafficking and forced labour can become economically empowered is they are sufficiently supported.
He reiterates that sex work is not work at all but a form of exploitation.
“So, we are providing them with counselling services and helping them to rebuild their lives. One thing we discovered is that most women are vulnerable because they are not financially independent.
“We tried to look for funding so that we can fully rehabilitate these women and girls by equipping them with vocations skills for economic empowerment,” Ng’ombo says.
RSGR started its women empowerment initiative in 2018 in Neno where the NGO has three shelters where survivors learn skills.
The organisation is running similar programmes in Mangochi, Machinga and Blantyre where.
Christopher Makumbi, an officer based at Chilomoni Police Station in Blantyre, who works as the women’s patron, appeals to them to have all their attention on the trainings.
“As the police, we often work with these women at night. We handle various cases involving sex workers because they often are victims of physical violence. This vocational training is an opportunity for them to transform their lives,” Makumbi says.