Zambian Sex Workers Offered 'Transformation'

Monday, January 16, 2012

A nongovernmental group in Zambia has reached out to 7,000 sex workers since 1992 and has helped many find new occupations. But other women in the impoverished country don't think they can afford to quit. "I do this for my daughter," one says.

LUSAKA, Zambia (WOMENSENEWS) -- These days, Comfort Mwansa, 26, has a full, busy life.

While attending school, she also makes and sells doormats to meet expenses. She is looking forward to having a family and giving her children a better life than her own.

"I want to work hard and make sure that the children I will have in the future will have everything they need," she says.

Mwansa is one of many women who say their lives have been turned around by the Tasintha Programme, a grassroots nongovernmental organization that aims to eliminate commercial sex work and HIV/AIDS in Zambia.

Lucy Bwalya, Tasintha's program officer, says it has recruited and provided skills training to 7,000 female sex workers in Lusaka since 1992. Of them, about 60 percent have left sex work; 120 have died from AIDS and other diseases.

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Kunda Matipa, Tasintha's operations officer, says that recruiting sex workers on the street to stop sex work and join Tasintha isn't easy.

"At times during the process of recruitment, we have to pretend to be a sex worker," he says of the female staff members. "Or if you are a man, you have to pretend to be buying sex."

Nearly 70 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line in Zambia, according to the World Bank. HIV prevalence is 13.5 percent among adults ages 15 to 49, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. Women are more likely to be living with HIV than men.

Varying Categories

There are different categories of sex workers in Zambia, according to Tasintha. "White-collar sex workers" are educated and have jobs, yet also secretly engage in sex work. "Hard-core sex workers" work in hotels, lodges, clubs and bars. They are usually targeted by foreigners and tourists and frequently use drugs. Those in the third are children who start sex work as early as 12 years old.

President Michael Sata, who took office in September 2011, has pledged to create more employment opportunities for young people and for women as part of his poverty-alleviation strategies.

But for now, sex work remains a huge lure for women such as Clara, 28, who declined to give her full name for privacy reasons. She has been a sex worker for the past 10 years.

"I do this for my little girl," Clara says. "I provide for her through this."

She says she can make $80 in a day.

Clara says she does her best to protect herself from HIV/AIDS by using condoms, but that clients don't always comply.

"For me, I know about HIV, and I always do my best to avoid getting this disease," she says. "And, you know, it is not easy because at times we get clients who don't want to use a condom and, actually, there are times when our clients even rape us."

She says that some sex workers don't realize that condoms can protect against HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Some think condoms are only to prevent pregnancy.

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