As we commemorate the 7th day of 16 days of activism against Gender Based Violence and World AIDS Day, l am finding myself thinking of the many women out there who choose the occupation of selling sex, basically known as sex workers.
These women, young and old, who take on this very perilous occupation for various reasons, face the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, as well as that of violence in its many forms including physical, sexual, verbal and psychological abuse from ordinary people and their clients alike. They are judged, ridiculed and humiliated.
I am not one to judge but l feel that, although l do not agree with their line of work, this is one group that should not be ignored. Yet we do and we judge them and stand on our high moral pedestals, but at the end of the day no one is perfect. We all do wrong in one way or the other.
One has to be at their wits end to turn to such an unsafe profession, but they have to do this to feed their families. I think we can all relate to the aspect of the importance of feeding our families and having to do almost anything to ensure our children are fed and clothed. Looked at from that angle can put the issue into perspective.
According to the National AIDS Council, the HIV prevalence rate among sex workers is 56.4%. Usually these women are powerless when negotiating for safe sex. The client who holds all the power in the form of money calls the shots, and, because these women are desperate for money to survive, particularly in these harsh economic times, they end up giving in putting themselves at tremendous risk. Some are even offered double the payment for unprotected sex. It is reported that the prevalence rate for those between the ages 18-24 is 36% and 25- 29 is 55%, so the older she gets, and the more people she encounters, the higher the risk.
Besides psychological abuse during condom negotiation, sex workers also encounter many instances of physical abuse from clients who are either high or intoxicated, or who simply do not want to pay after the service has been rendered. They are at risk of sexual violence as well.
I watched a heart breaking documentary a while ago where two sex workers were recounting an incident where they were gang raped at knife point by some men at a cemetery, had their belongings including clothes stolen and were dumped in a nearby neighbourhood naked. Of the two, one was HIV positive and because they were gang raped at the same time the other one ended up contracting the virus as well. Because of the stigma attached to their work it was difficult for them to seek help both medically and from the police and so they ended up suffering in silence. In fact the police round them up during raids and beat them and coerce them into having sex in exchange for their freedom. When they go and seek help from a health institution they face stigma and ridicule from nurses who laugh at them. They face violence in every sphere including the ones meant to protect them.
The Ministry of Health does not acknowledge their presence in their programming. Sex work is the oldest profession and whether we like it or not it’s not going anywhere. There is a need to acknowledge them and provide them with access to condoms, HIV prevention information and sexual health services to them. Because of the nature of their job they come into contact with many people who in turn go back to their families and put their families at risk, thereby creating a vicious cycle.
So while we commemorate these two very important events that have left a devastating mark on our society let us take time out to remember these women from an empathic and non-judgemental point of view. They are human beings too who are entitled to the very same rights that every other Zimbabwean women are.