Hawa Chelangat

MASERU, Lesotho (WOMENSENEWS)–As Saturday night falls on Kingsway, the main drag in Lesotho’s one-horse capital city, groups of young women begin lurking on street corners and under streetlights. They giggle and gossip, heads together conspiratorially, like teen-agers out for a night on the town.

But this is a working night, and when a car slows down to check out the wares, the girlishchatter is quickly replaced by hip swinging and saucy looks. Every customer means money and money equals survival.

“The first time I did it, I cried,” said 22-year-old Lonia Ratesebe as she waits on her normal corner with her friend and housemate, Ana Dikeledi. “I felt guilty, but there was no food, no clothing and no jobs. Now, on a good night, I make 200 to 300 rand (about $24), enough even to send some home to my family.” Ratesebe’s earnings help feed her sisters and mother in a rural community a few hours outside the city.

“If we could find jobs we wouldn’t do this,” chimes in Dikeledi, 24, whose pale sundress looks more like a school girl’s outfit than that of a hardened street walker. “But Lesotho is poor and there is hunger here now.”

Food Crisis Leaves No Alternative

Crop harvests in 2002 were lower than in normal years and last year the government declared a state of famine. Both young women said they spent more than a year looking for work, but sometime last year, when the food crisis here reached its height, they turned to prostitution. Although this year’s crop was better, the Rome-based World Food Program, which is running an emergency relief operation here and in five other countries around the region, says that around 650,000 people–about one-third of the country’s population–were short of food.

World Food Program officials say rising prostitution is a problem across the six Southern African countries that have been facing food shortages. Here in Maseru the situation is particularly striking due to a textile boom–fueled by new free-trade pacts with the United States–that has attracted thousands of young women from the countryside who are seeking employment. In the year 2001, the last year for which figures are available, more than 20,000 new textile jobs were created, more than 90 percent of which were filled by women.

But the jobs are not enough and many young women, like Ratesebe and Dikeledi, end up in a far older profession. Often they are the least educated and poorest of the young women and girls who come here. The factories, run largely by Taiwanese, usually require that their workers speak English and have a minimum level of education–qualifications few rural women can meet. Other women simply supplement their tiny factory incomes by selling sex. Many of the women here have young children from before their days as prostitutes. The children usually stay with rural relatives while their mothers are working.

Afraid to Check for AIDS

Sixteen-year-old Leratu, who asked to be identified by only her first name, is another recent arrival to Maseru’s streets. No factory would hire her because of her age, so she ended up as a prostitute. Although she says she always uses a condom–she even pulls one out of the pocket of her tight, black pants as proof–she has been treated for syphilis and is afraid to find out her HIV status.

A number of nongovernmental organizations are working with prostitutes here and in another industrial border town, encouraging them to use condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. But Leratu gives the impression that it is not knowledge that is lacking among these women. Instead, it’s a sense of having any alternatives.

“Sometimes there’s nothing you can do,” she admits. “If you refuse they will beat you.” Knowing that their power to refuse is slight, the women here simply charge a premium for unprotected sex, or $15 instead of the $5 with a condom.

Few of the women here have told their parents what they do. Some say their parents probably know the truth, but would rather not think too hard about where the money that puts food in their bellies comes from. Ratesebe is one of the few exceptions. She says she has told her mother and she approves. It is, after all, a means of survival.

About 100 miles away, in the village of Thaba-Tseka, 34-year-old Malebese Mohapi waits for food at a World Food Program distribution point. Before food distribution began, she sent her 19-year-old daughter to Maseru to find work. That was months ago. Today, she says, she thinks the girl is working as a maid for another family, but she hesitatingly admits that she doesn’t know for sure. But the small amount of money she sends each month, about $15, is greatly appreciated and Mohapi doesn’t want to spend too much time thinking about where it comes from.

Back in Maseru, most of the girls and young women seeking customers on a dark Saturday night say they would leave this life if they could. But most make nearly double what they would in the factories, even if they could get such a job. “If I could find a job, I would stop doing this,” says Ratesebe. “But it would have to be a good job.”

Nicole Itano is a free-lance writer based in Johannesburg.

For more information:

United Nations World Food Program–Lesotho: