Female sex workers Botswana always at risk

Sex workers in BotswanaRejected by their communities they are, the ‘ladies of the night’ of Botswana.  The female sex workers are not only at risk of being robbed in the streets or assaulted by clients, they also have to contend with stigma from health care providers as well as abuse and rape by law enforcement officers.
The shocking reality that sex workers face on a daily basis in Botswana is revealed in a focus group discussion for female sex workers conducted by the Matshelo Community Development Association (MCDA). A total of 11 sex workers (nine Batswana and two Zimbabweans) or ‘ladies of the night’ as they are popularly referred to, participated in this discussion. Themed Voices of Sex Workers, the forum focused on three sub-topics; life in the community, safety in the industry and access to health care services.

The discussion highlighted the brutal challenges sex workers face daily. It was revealed that many Botswana women, as young as 16-years-old are doing sex work in Botswana. Although many sex workers ply the streets and truck stops, there are also some who work in bars, salons and hotels in search of clients. In a good month, sex workers revealed that they make around P2,500.

All the sex workers who participated in the discussion said that their work environment is not safe, noting that most paid sex usually takes place in the bush since it would be unprofitable to rent a hotel or other similar establishment. They say at times they get abused or even raped by their clients while in the bush. They said working on the streets, going to the bushes or other secluded areas in clients’ cars make for some of the risks of their vocation.

“I once walked for close to a kilometre after my client abandoned me in the bush. He had demanded that I give him back his money so that he could give me a lift,” said one sex worker. Many reported that they have found it difficult to get the police to follow up on complaints of abuse.  They also said that the stigma from the community leads to insults and exclusion from society, and in some cases, even violence.

The participants further noted that they often find it difficult to access condoms, especially free ones, which results in unprotected sex.In most urban centres of Botswana, sex reportedly takes place on the streets as well as in bars and shebeens. According to the sex workers, their clients range from nightclub patrons to truck drivers on transit.

Because of the influx of Zimbabwean border jumpers into Botswana, there are many sex workers from that neighbouring country. Some even reported that police officers demand sex as a condition for registering a compliant. “As you see me now, I am a sex worker but nobody in my family knows about it, not even my boyfriend,” one worker remarked during the discussions.

The sex workers reported that they are overwhelmed by sneers and acerbic comments from health workers as well as members of the public  at health clinics. They complained that they are even turned away from the health facilities with health officers telling them that they cannot be treated for Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) unless they bring along their ‘boyfriends’. They said that some health workers even insult them.

All the participants noted that abuse by police officers is often targeted at  sex workers who work in the streets.  They further stated that police officers demand sex and money from them, often  as a condition for release when they are taken into custody. “Some police officers often take us into custody when they find us in the streets and later demand sex as a condition for our release,” said another sex worker. Also common are fights among sex workers and bullying of new arrivals and sex workers from other countries.

Despite the range of health facilities available in Botswana, participants reported that they fear health care workers would breach their confidentiality. As such, a large number of sex workers would rather not go to public health institutions. Speaking on the sidelines of the group discussion, MCDA programme manager, Gaolape Makgarapa said the purpose of the discussions was to gather information about experiences of sex workers in accessing HIV/AIDS and other healthcare services, as well as to clearly highlight issues of stigma and safety for sex workers.

She said sex workers are among the most-at-risk populations (MARPS), explaining that these are people whose behaviour make them more vulnerable to contracting HIV/AIDS. “We are not promoting sex work. Our aim is to prevent HIV/AIDS. We are saying that a sex worker, just like any other person should be protected from contracting HIV and AIDS,” said Makgarapa. “Health problems such as STIs, HIV, and violence are assumed to be ‘risks of the trade’, hence neglected. Police also think that violence is something that sex workers should expect and hence ignore it.”

Other officials who took part in the discussions included retired Tatitown Court President, Ludo Mosojane, district grant officer, Reginah Dema, midwife and nurse, John Moloi and MCDA board member, Ditiro Majadibodu. The MCDA is one of very few organisations in Botswana that targets sex workers, but it has received little support from government and non-governmental partners. MCDA offers counselling and treatment for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, harm reduction for substance use, and advice on how to reduce client numbers and negotiate consistent condom use

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