Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sex Workers Need Support, Not Condemnation

Malawi's aim to give sex workers an alternative to sex work is a step in the right direction and it's certainly better than the finger wagging and moralising that passes for policy in Kenya and other African countries. Sex workers will be offered low-interest loans to start small businesses and in return they will be expected to give up sex work.

But a serious problem with this approach on its own is that most small businesses fail. There is a limit to the proportion of a population that can depend on small businesses for their income. And if there are too many small businesses, even the ones that don't fail do badly.

Besides, it's not just sex workers and currently unemployed people that want access to microcredit, especially to set up small businesses. Many people are just about getting by, earning tiny amounts of money some of the time and turning up to work every day in the hope of earning enough to pay the next day's fare to work.

A lot of people you talk to, especially in professions such as beauty therapy and hairdressing, for example, say that their ambition is to either make or borrow enough money to set up a small business, a salon or something that is more dependable than an employer who may not even pay up the pittance that is owed.

And when people have access to credit, too many of them seem to go for the very businesses that have already flooded the market. Selling second hand clothes is something of a euphemism among sex workers because there are so many people doing it, a lot have to resort to commercial sex work to make enough to survive. Many sex workers that I have met are trained in hairdressing, beauty therapy or hotel and catering in one of the numerous colleges (or rather dubious quality) that you see in even the smallest towns.

Commercial sex workers, subsistence workers, homeless people, indeed, any poor or vulnerable people, face a number of problems. Not having enough money to survive is just one problem in what can be a long chain of circumstances. This substantial group of people is not exclusively female, but it is predominantly female.

Girls are less likely to go to school, less likely to have adequate school attendance, less likely to complete primary education, less likely to go on to or complete secondary education and in the end, they are unlikely to have enough education to compete for the small number of jobs that are open to females. Even those who do well at school are unlikely to get a job that pays a reasonable income and this is particularly true of females.

Many girls with too little education are probably poor and even if their family has some money, it is more likely to be spent on boys. So if a girl or woman decides to get some training or vocational education, finding enough money is one of the biggest problems. Commercial sex work is far better paid than any of the other options available. It would be interesting to know how many girls and women raised the money to go to hairdressing or beauty therapy school through sex work only to end up supplementing the meagre income they subsequently earn by returning to sex work.

There are two points that need to be highlighted here: firstly, older women, those in their thirties and forties, are in the most urgent need of finding alternatives to sex work. For them, sex work doesn't have the many dangers that it has for younger women. Older women have to compete with younger women by resorting to more risky sexual practices and by working for less, which means they have to find more clients. But for many older women, it's just not possible for them to get clients any more. Worse still, the sex industry is currently flooded with sex workers.

The second point is that commercial sex workers themselves need protection. No amount of grant money for small businesses is going to result in sex work disappearing off the face of the earth. On the contrary, if the process of enticing women away from sex work is successful, the price of commercial sex will increase. Unless governments can also banish poverty and unemployment, sex work will become an even more attractive option because the price it attracts will go up.

In Kenya, sex work itself is not against the law. Living on immoral earnings is against the law and some of the people who make most out of the earnings of sex workers include the police. They persecute sex workers and get a steady income from them and because police have so much power, most sex workers are too scared to be arrested or changed. They pay up, thinking that the alternative could be a lot worse.

And they are right. Sex workers face regular threats, such as beatings, arrests, rape and persecution. Although this is not always at the hands of the police, sex workers are not protected by the police or anyone else. As the aim of enticing sex workers away from commercial sex is partly to reduce the transmission of HIV, they Malawian government will also need to take measures to protect the rights of women, whether they are involved in sex work or not.

In Kenya, good education about reproductive, sexual health and even health in general are rare, especially for those who don't even receive a decent level of education of any kind. Health services, including reproductive and sexual health are under funded and effectively unavailable to most people, including those who are most in need.

Malawi and other countries with high HIV prevalence need to prioritize business training, low-interest loans and alternative sources of income for women who want to give up sex work, who are likely to be able to leave sex work and who will be able to make a better living by leaving sex work. Eradicating commercial sex completely will take a lot longer.

Those who will continue to have to resort to commercial sex work need the protection of the law, they need to be protected from the excesses of the police and other officials and they need to be protected from the many people and bodies who treat them like criminals when they are more likely to be victims of crime and corruption. If sex workers have access to social and health services and their rights are protected, this will go a long way towards reducing the spread of HIV.

Moralizing and finger wagging will continue to have little impact. The Kenyan plan to do a survey of commercial sex workers and other vulnerable people will be futile if people have no protection from the sort of prejudice and discrimination that has been whipped up by the moralizers and finger waggers. The current constitution makes no plans to provide such protection, so such changes are still a long way off.

The Malawian government is to be applauded but they and other governments need to deal with the human rights issues that are involved in commercial sex work, such as poverty, vulnerability, corruption, prejudice and extreme violence. It’s not commercial sex work per se that results in high rates of HIV transmission. It’s the living and working conditions faced by those who have to resort to commercial sex work.


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