Southern Africa: Sex workers risk contracting HIV

Southern Africa: Sex workers risk contracting HIV

Date: August 26, 2014
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Johannesburg, 28 May: Limited access to sexual reproductive health and abuse from male customers have been identified as key factors that place sex workers at risk of contracting HIV. Nkomile Mpooa of CARE-Lesotho brought the issue up during her presentation at the SADC Protocol@Work Summit currently underway in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Mpooa presented the case study in the Women’s Rights category.

Faced by unemployment, low income and low education levels, women are driven to becoming sex workers. Without proper reproductive health care sex workers risk contracting HIV, unwanted pregnancies, STI’s and gender based violence in the form of rape and physical abuse.

Noting the risky environment that these women work, CARE-Lesotho in collaboration with the Lesotho Ministry of Health launched project Ts’epo (Hope) in 2010 that aims at reaching out to sex workers in Maseru and Maputsoe in the Leribe district.

“Most sex workers show interest when talking about sexual and reproductive health issues but rarely seek medical assistance because of reported discrimination by nurses and other health workers who know that these women are sex workers,” explained Mpooa.

She added that sex workers’ often prefer to remain anonymous for fear of stigmatisation and this poses a challenge in advocacy campaigns as the profession is illegal.

To assist in addressing the challenges sex workers face, Mpooa said that project Ts’epo developed a peer education manual on sex workers’ reproductive health. About 225 sex works from Maseru have been trained in peer education and 70 are now peer educators. A follow up training added an additional 38 sex workers from Maseru and Maputsoe where 27 remain active.

Under Ts’epo, access to condoms has been made easier. These are made available where at bars, streets and places where sex workers are likely to hang around. HIV information leaflets relevant and appropriate to sex workers are also distributed regularly.

However, she noted that not all sex workers used condoms that were provided citing reluctance of some clients who do not want to use condoms. This exposes sex workers to higher risk of getting HIV and STIs.

Speaking on the side-lines of the conference, Lesotho Minister for Gender and Youth, Sports and Recreation, Honourable Chief Thesele John Maseribane acknowledge multiple challenges that sex workers faced, but pointed out that efforts are being made to ensure that sexual workers access reproductive health care.

“Careful research is required to know areas that government can influence, committed implementing partners, the Ministry of Health, higher education institutions, and the Ministry of labour,” Maseribane added.

He further pointed out that legalising sex trade is difficult in Lesotho because of the influence of culture and christian values in the country. However, the Minister said the national HIV policy should address risk groups like sex workers.

The SADC region hosts countries with the highest HIV infection rates. In Lesotho 23% of the population is affected with HIV, where women form a large part of the patients. Sex trade is illegal in the country.

Mulemwa Thomas Mulemwa is a student at the University of Dar es Salaam. This article is part of the GL News Service special coverage of the SADC Gender Protocol Summit underway at Kopanong Hotel and Conference Centre in Johanesburg, South Africa, offering fresh views on everday news.

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