Sex workers unprotected from violence

Date: January 1, 1970
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Though Southern Africa is seeing increasing opportunities and rights for women, for those engaged in sex work, protection from gender violence continues to be elusive. Some people even argue that sex workers cannot be victims of rape at all.

Moreover, when they are victims of violence or sexual assault, few receive help from police or health services. Many turn to drugs or alcohol.
Not a day goes by without the media in Mauritius mentioning cases of rape, sexual abuse and sexual violence against women, including gang rape of girls as young as 14.  Yet, what we see and hear in the media is only one side of the coin.
The other gloomy side is the hundred of cases that remain unreported. Behind these closed doors, thousands of women keep secrets of all sorts of violence.
Of the 239 cases of gender violence officially reported at the Ministry of Women from January to May 2007, it is unlikely that a single one of them will be from a sex worker. Statistics are blind when it comes to sex workers. There is a general perception that rape and violence form part of their work.
Three years ago “Chrysalide”, the first and only rehabilitation and residential centre for women drug users opened its doors. According to Georgette Talary, one of the responsible officers at Chrysalide, drugs, prostitution, and HIV/AIDS are all related. It is a vicious circle.
Pimps and partners encourage women to inject themselves so that they can go into prostitution. Once they get used the drugs they want more not only for themselves but their greedy pimps and partners. Chrysalide is a real haven for the 150 women who have passed through its door.
During group therapy, words are not enough to express all the horrors, nightmares, assaults and violence the women have been through. Dorlene* recounts how she was sold by a pimp without her knowledge. It was only when the car stopped to pick up four other men that she realised that she had been lied to. 
 “It is only question of how I prefer to die. I have been through this ordeal before. They not only raped me but while one was doing the act, the others were giving instructions on how and what to do. I, therefore, tried my luck, opened the door, and jumped out. I spent the night in the sugar cane field,” she recalls. 
Another one told us how she looked at the sky and prayed that God would take her life while she was being raped and all sorts of dreadful things being done to her.
In Mauritius, women and young girls go into sex work for a variety of reasons. Very often, we hear of cases where parents force young girls into prostitution so that they can bring money back home. Mothers engage in sex work to feed their children. Partners convince young women. Sugar daddies, promising Nike shoes or Quick Silver t-shirts, tempt young girls.
At the upcoming Southern African Heads of State Summit in Lusaka in August, one of the issues on the table will likely be the proposed upgrading of the 1997 SADC Gender and Development Declaration and 1998 Addendum on Prevention and Eradication of Violence Against Women and Children, into a Protocol. 
Yet, for this Protocol to truly impact on women’s lives, there is a need to ensure that the rights of all women are protected, including the most marginalised. All SADC Heads of State have signed the Convention of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
It defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”
Yet many countries in the region, including Mauritius, fail to protect women who do sex work.  Many report that they have been beaten, raped, assaulted and even denied the right to exist. According to some, the very same people who are supposed to be the guarantors of law and order have raped quite a few of them.
Many women at Chrysalide recount how when they were on the streets, their children had to bear the stigma and humiliation of friends refusing to sit close to them.  “Our children preferred not to go to school as nobody would sit by their side. They were branded as being HIV positive and the kids were afraid of contracting the virus,” one woman said.
Talary mentions that even living at Chrysalide can be hard for young people. “We have a young and bright girl who is staying with her mum at the moment. She prefers to walk a long distance rather than stops at the right bus stop to return home in the afternoon. She does not want her friends to know that home is Chrysalide.”  
Over 90% of new HIV cases in Mauritius are through injecting drug users and over 75% of the women in Chrysalide are HIV positive. “They are safer with us as they go for medical check up in a specialised centre for HIV patients regularly and once a week a doctor visits them in the Centre. We make sure that they take their medication as they should and everything is given for free,” Talary said.
Life is not easy at Chrysalide. The rules are very strict. Yet there is also time to relax, to work and a time to produce something concrete. The women are very busy raising chickens, planting vegetables, making candles or other hand made crafts. They also get basic literacy classes, as most of them have never been to school.
“We take them on educational tours from time to time. They even participated in a focus group discussion on gender and advertisements organised by Media Watch Organisation-GEMSA.” Talary explained
The main concern of management of Chrysalide is finding proper accommodation for the women after their rehabilitation period. Most of them do get jobs as private companies and hotels are quite sensitive on this issue.
“There is even one of them who is now a trainer. She does lots or sensitisation and awareness campaigns in NGOs. She is also a field worker for the needle exchange programme. The fact that a former drug user and a former sex worker is now in full control of her life is a role model for the others. She is helping the others to come to terms with their traumatic experiences.” 
The Rs.25 million that Rama Sithanen, Minister of Finance, has earmarked in the 2007-2008 budget for the social re-integration of vulnerable women has not gone into a deaf ear. Marlene Ladine, Manager of Chrysalide, will soon send a project to the Minister of Finance to empower the clients of Chrysalide even more.
*Not her real name
Loga Virahsawmy is the President of Media Watch Organisation in Mauritius. This article, part of a special series ahead of the SADC Heads of State Summit 2007, is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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