Saving Sex Workers in Malawi

by Pilirani Semu-Banda
Malawi

Twenty-seven year-old Lima Wochi from Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, looks dejected. She ventured into prostitution at the tender age of 12. She says she is tired of sex work and is looking for a way out of it.

Prostitution is deemed unacceptable in Malawi but the sex trade continues to thrive. Large numbers of women, especially young ones, are seen loitering around street corners, near hotels, bars and other entertainment places.

Wochi is one of these women. She immediately catches one’s attention as she prowls around a popular bar in Chigwirizano, one of the capital city’s popular entertainment joints. The woman has all sorts of scars on her face and thighs – many of her customers have inflicted physical and emotional abuse on her over the years.

“The worst case of abuse I encountered was two years ago when three men gang-raped me and beat me up. I couldn’t work for three months as I was seriously injured,” Wochi recalls pensively.

Wochi says she went back to the sex trade because she knew no other way of earning a living. But she says she is now too worn-out to go on.

“I don’t want to be a prostitute anymore. I am fed up with everything that comes with it, but my main problem is that I never went to school and I can never get good employment,” she worries.

Another of Wochi’s major concerns is the risk of contracting HIV. She has not been brave enough to go for an HIV test yet. The 2006 Malawi Behavior Surveillance Survey indicates that up to 70 percent of sex workers are HIV positive – this is the highest rate being faced by one group of people in the country – the national prevalence rate for Malawi is 14 percent. AIDS is Malawi’s second leading cause of death after malaria.

Wochi says she was forced into prostitution by abject poverty. “I found sex work lucrative and I thought it was a very easy way of making money.” She left her rural village in southern Malawi and moved to the country’s capital, Lilongwe. She immediately started roaming around the city’s drinking places and hotels plying the sex trade.

Now, Wochi is looking for a substantial sum of money that will set her off in a “more respectable business.” She is paid US$3 for providing sex without using a condom and US$1 for sex with a condom. “I sleep with five men on a good night but sometimes I go without getting any customers,” she says.

The United Nations Population Fund’s HIV Prevention Officer Humphreys Shumba says that sex work in Malawi is mainly driven by poverty. The country remains one of the most impoverished in the world and is ranked among the 14 poorest nations by the 2007/2008 United Nations Human Development Index, which ranks countries based on broader indicators of their quality of life including life expectancy, enrollment in school, freedom from disease and other measures.

According to 2008 research findings by the Community Health Department at the University of Malawi, up to 83 percent of prostitutes in Malawi are known to depend solely on sex work for their livelihoods and 95 percent of them have children. Sixty nine percent of the women who are involved in the sex trade are divorced.

Shumba says unprotected sex, which is often practiced by sex workers, is among the key drivers of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Malawi. “Sex work in Malawi is characterized by, among other factors, lower age of entry into the trade where girls as young as 12 years are known to be sex workers,” he says. Since 2005, government has since been deploying child protection officers to find and rehabilitate child prostitutes so they can return to their communities.

Shumba explains that lack of negotiation skills and assertiveness in ensuring safer sex through condom use also aggravates the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted illnesses.

UNFPA has since funded the Family Planning Association of Malawi (FPAM) to work on reducing the transmission of HIV among the prostitutes by empowering them to practice safer sex, and by increasing the sex workers’ access to reproductive health, voluntary counseling and testing.

So far, the law in Malawi is silent on prostitution. However, the police usually carry out night raids and arrest anyone found loitering in entertainment and public places – most of those arrested are prostitutes. The police charge them with minor infractions: either being found Idle and Disorderly, or Rogue and Vagabond – crimes that do not exact harsh punishment.

Grace Thupi, a sex worker, says she was once arrested during a night raid and was taken to court. “I was charged with Rogue and Vagabond and the court imposed a suspended sentence of two weeks in jail,” she says.

To fill in the gaps, FPAM is engaging the sex workers by providing them with information, skills for negotiating safer sex (condom use) and alternative livelihood options, says Bessie Nkhwazi, the NGO’s district manager for Lilongwe.

FPAM, the government, NGOs and other service providers in Malawi realize that they cannot stop prostitution overnight, so their focus is largely on HIV prevention. And though FPAM and UNFPA create their workplans with the government, it’s mainly for appearances so they can say the government is somehow involved. Some of the money that FPAM receives comes from the National AIDS Commission, which is a government body, but the government is mainly helping to combat child prostitution through the deployment of child protection officers. The implementation of actual programs, especially those for older prostitutes, are really falling on the NGOs.

“We are addressing the economic and social obstacles faced by those indulging in the sex work trade. The sex workers are undergoing training in business management and they are also being equipped with vocational skills such as tailoring, running hair salons, restaurants and mushroom growing,” says Nkhwazi.

Jane Banda, 25, is one sex worker who has been trained in tailoring. She is waiting for a loan to be provided by UNFPA through FPAM that will set her up with her new business.

“I have been abused so much in this trade. Some man picked me up from the drinking joint and dumped me in a grave yard in the middle of the night. I have never been as scared as I was on that night. I can’t live like that anymore,” declares Banda.

Photo by flickr user khym54 used under Creative Commons licenses. – Ed.

About the Author
Pilirani Semu-Banda is a freelance journalist based in Malawi. As a freelancer, Pilirani has won both local and international awards, including the Africa Education Journalism Award. She has also been voted Malawi’s best female journalist twice.

Posted in Economy, FEATURE ARTICLES, The World

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