A group of sex workers in Botswana recently threatened to expose high-profile clients if their demands for better treatment by the government and local communities are not met.
Sisonke Botswana, a sex worker-led organization made up of both men and women that advocates for equality and protection of sex workers, is advocating for the legalization of such work. That, the group hopes, will lead to better health care access and education, as well as a reduction in physical, sexual, emotional and economic violence.
They made the threat before the lifting of the lockdown a month ago, and have maintained that they will release full names of well-known clients if their concerns are not taken seriously.
Sex work is a touchy subject, almost taboo, in Botswana. Although sex work is criminalized, there is no specific law that outlaws it. In most cases, young women on the streets looking for clients are charged with being a common nuisance or loitering.
Additionally, workers are often subject to discrimination and denied access to screenings for sexually transmitted diseases, routine HIV testing and access to antiretroviral treatments.
For sex workers like Dineo Masana, this is a way of life. Masana, who had experienced years-long unemployment, entered the industry after a man proposed having sex for money. Initially, she planned to partake in sex work for only a few months to earn enough money to support her family and start a small clothing business in the capital’s central market.
Four years later, such work is now Masana’s profession. It comes with a fair share of challenges, including stigma and violence.
“Community members call us dirty and immoral. We are sometimes the subject of gossip and ridicule. What is worse is being physically attacked by clients who promise to pay but don’t because they know that there is nowhere for us to report,” she said.
Sex workers are also subject to beatings, theft and rape, according to Aidsfonds, a Dutch nonprofit organization that aims to eradicate AIDS through community-focused solutions. Perpetrators are most often clients and at times community members or law enforcement workers who demand bribes in return for freedom. In order to mitigate violence, most sex workers work in groups.
Executive clients, like businessmen, company CEOs and politicians, are more deferential. “They respect me as I offer a fantasy. It’s a service they pay generously for,” said Masana.
With her income, Masana has built a house and put her two children through school; however, she still hopes to be protected on a national level. For better or worse, it’s a perpetual profession, she said.
“As long as we are alive, there will always be demand for this service. Instead of turning a blind eye, the government could consider legalizing it and formalizing the sex industry.”
Several years ago, Botswana considered legalizing sex work following pressure from activist groups, who insisted that making it criminal hindered the fight against HIV/AIDS.
“Findings have indicated that sex workers are more at risk when sex work is decriminalised, which in turn is a burden to government,” said Mothobi Mogorosi, a community outreach officer with the government-affiliated National AIDS Coordinating Agency. One challenge, he said, was how to manage the sector, because sex work is easy to engage in and many people would not want to be officially registered as sex workers.
“Our findings have indicated that some women partake in sexual transactions but don’t want to be identified with sex workers. From tertiary students to mothers and even married women, some women carry out sexual affairs for economic prospects. It would be challenging to reach out to them,” he said. “Prostitution is more widespread than we imagine, with the number probably in the range of more than 2,000, but because of the discrimination and social stigma, some individuals who partake in sex work are hesitant to come out clean.”
Sex work is the largely Christian country is also controversial on moral grounds. Pastor Mosieraele Robbie said that sex work would be shunned by Batswana. He said the government should rather strive to empower and enable community members to be able to eke out a decent living instead of selling their bodies. He also disputed that sex work could be categorized as a profession.
“It is a practice. A sinful practice at that,” he said.
The government’s criminalization of sex work likely contributes to an increase of HIV and AIDS within the industry. HIV/AIDS prevalence ranges from 53.5 to 68.5% among female sex workers in Botswana, according to a report conducted by the U.S.-based National Library of Medicine. Of these sex workers, it’s reported that they share an average of 7.6 sex partners a week, often with high rates of inconsistent condom use, as a result of being paid or forced to not use contraception.
A report by Botswana Network of Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS showed that 60% of sex workers in Botswana are HIV positive. Facilities such as the Nkaikela drop-in centre safe haven in Tlokweng, Gaborone, helps mostly female sex workers receive HIV prevention and care services.
“Sex workers need to be educated on sexual health reproduction and rights. They need to be empowered to make healthier choices,” said Masana.
Sisonke Botswana has indicated that denying the existence of sex work also works against the government’s efforts to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS, as workers are often stigmatized at health centers or given inadequate health services not specific to their needs.
The organization, in collaboration with the Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS, recently launched a program called Hands Off!, which focuses on reducing violence against sex workers in the South African region through “prevention, care and support activities,” including increasing access to health clinics, creating police-sensitization initiatives and providing legal services to sex workers.
Sisonke Botswana program officer Mandla Pule said the program would address the often exploited working conditions. “Through on-the-ground research and effective communication tools, we hope that the program will help decrease violence and other human rights abuses against sex workers. We keep reminding people that sex work is work, too,” Pule said.
Pule also noted that the program provides sex workers with health assistance in forms of medical services and food during times of dire need or emergency.
Some registered sex workers, largely foreigners who were unable to work due to movement restrictions and permit withholding, received assistance from good Samaritans working closely with Sisonke Botswana during the Covid-19 lockdown. Priority was given to sex workers who are HIV positive, migrants or have small children. There are 460 sex workers, both male and female, registered with Sisonke Botswana, and 20 peer educators across the five districts in the country.
(Edited by Mara Welty and Matthew Hall)
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