Stigmatised and oppressed, African sex workers crave for respect
By Sahana Ghosh
"My body is my business", "Sex work is work" scream the badges on the colorfully attired African delegates from 11 countries of the continent at the ongoing parallel International AIDS Conference in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata. Stigmatised and oppressed, they say they crave for respect
Although Africa is home to about 14.5% of the world's population, it is estimated to be home to 69% of all people living with HIV and to 72% of all AIDS deaths in 2009.
They share their experiences and travails among themselves and also with others of their calling from various parts of Europe, Asia and the North and South America and Australia. Over 550 sex workers from 41 nations are taking part in the event.
The event is being jointly hosted by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (GNSWP) and the city-based Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) and All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW) as sex workers were denied visas by the US government to participate in the XIX International AIDS Conference which began Sunday in Washington D.C.
"We are pushing the agenda that sex workers are not criminals and should have access to healthcare, social justice and also the agenda of access to health care for People Living with HIV or Aids (PLWHAs)," says John Mathenge, the country coordinator of Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA).
Mathenge, a male sex worker, says they face a lot of stigma.
"Male sex workers face a lot of stigma in addition to the stigma associated with HIV -AIDS. But things are gradually changing and the authorities are opening up to dialogue," Mathenge told IANS.
Felista, a fellow Kenyan, says HIV infection rates have substantially dropped in her country.
"Kenya is the best when it comes to practising safe sex. HIV infection rates have come down significantly and the new infections are not from sex workers. There are separate clinics for sex workers and we are provided good facilities including anti-HIV drugs," she said.
On other hand Etina, a female sex worker from Botswana where the HIV pandemic is on the rise, lamented: "Although condoms are distributed to all the people including sex workers, most are not educated enough to practice safe sex. Even the police harass us and demand free, unprotected sex."
Sanyu Hajjara Batte from Uganda, drew a grim picture of the condition of sex workers in her country.
"Sex workers are slaughtered like goats, arrested without trial. There are only two sex worker-friendly clinics in (capital) Kampala. And if someone wants to indulge in unprotected sex we make them sign contracts. We do not want to spread the disease."
"If someone wants to quit, they are fully supported and we train them in sewing, catering and the to sustain themselves," Batte added.
Tom, a male sex worker from Zimbabwe, said her family is unaware of the nature of his work though his friends are in the know.
"Most sex workers in my country are forced into the trade because of poverty, although many of them are university graduates," he said.
For a sex worker, what matters most is being treated as a normal and respectable human being.
Mohammed from Morocco said he had been arrested thrice. "We have no respect. We are seen as criminals by society."
"Decriminalization of sex work will relieve them of social stigmas and make basic facilities including healthcare accessible to them, which is the first step in preventing the spread of HIV-AIDS," Kenya's Mathenge suggested.