Sex workers want protection

Sex workers want protection

Date: August 20, 2013
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The SADC Heads of State Summit means big business for Ani*, a sex worker who serves at least three clients a night in Lilongwe’s social hotspot-Bwandilo. She has a chance to earn some Rands and Dollars, but has to compete with her counterparts from Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique who also work in various parts of Malawi.

“Ehhh, $20 dollars short-time or 10 000 Kwachas,” she bellowed when I approached, with my accreditation card for the Summit dangling from my collar. On a normal day, she would charge a third of the amount, but with foreign exchange readily available Ani increases her prices.Many of these working women keep a low profile and often stand in the shaded areas near traffic lights, fearing arrest by local authorities.

“We are afraid of being arrested since the police are all over the city to ensure summit delegates are safe. But their safety is our curse,” she said.

According to other sex workers I spoke to, police officers arrest them on weak charges such as indecent public conduct and vagrancy. To avoid arrest, police often force them to have sex without pay or protection. “It is hard to report such cases because many people think sex work is illegal and the police are at the forefront treating us as lesser beings,” explains Ani’s colleague.

According to lawyer Christine Siyanda, sex work is not illegal in Malawi because section 145 and 146 of the Penal Code only prohibits men and women from from running brothels as well as living off the earnings of commercial sex work.

In most SADC countries, sex work is illegal, leaving may women sex workers unprotected, vulnerable to rape, abuse and HIV. Moreover, they are unable to access health and law enforcement services due to discrimination and fear of reprisal.

Mahamoudou Ndriandahy, Executive Secretary of Plate-Forme Nationale des Organisations de la Societe Civil, a network of civil society organizations in Madagascar, explains that in Madagascar, although sex work is frowned upon and religious groups detest sex workers, there is no law in place that requires police to arrest people engaging in sex-for-money transactions.

Ndriandahy maintains that this has huge benefits for the protection and health of sex workers. “The sex workers have come together to form an umbrella body aimed at protecting their rights and well-being as well as safeguarding their clients. They undergo testing regularly and are free to seek prevention, treatment and health care services when it comes to sexually transmitted Infections,” she said.

In Madagascar, like Malawi and many other SADC countries, high levels of poverty and unemployment, disproportionately affect women and girls. This often compels them, especially those coming from rural areas to engage either in transactional sex or commercial sex work in order to survive and support their families. This also encourages sex tourism especially in countries like Madagascar, which is a popular tourist destination in SADC.

For Ani, SADC member states cannot continue burying their heads. “Rather than investing in rounding us up, governments should review the laws and ensure access to healthcare services because by safeguarding me, they will be saving the lives of three, four or five clients I see per night.”

Although decriminalising sex work is a contentious move because it is steeped in moral, religious and ethical questions, SADC Heads of State must face the facts and realise that regulation comes with benefits to the country as a whole.

*Not her real name

James Chavula is a journalist for Nation Publications Limited, a Media Centre of Excellence in Malawi. This article is part of Gender Link’s Opinion and Commentary Service special coverage of SADC HOS Summit in Malawi, offering fresh views on everyday news.

Normal 0 false false false EN-GB X-NONE X-NONE Caption: The SADC flags fly high at the Bingu Conference Centre, where the SADC Heads of State Summit kicks off today in Lilongwe. Photo: James Chavula


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