African sex workers unite for their rights

By Clare Johannesburg Feb 5, 2009, 14:58 GMT

Johannesburg – From 10 African countries they came – women and men, straight, gay and transgendered – to share their experiences of selling sex in the world’s poorest continent and to press their demands for equal rights.

Johannesburg, Africa’s biggest city, played host this week to the first-ever African sex worker conference.

Wearing yellow conference T-shirts and jeans for the most part, 153 delegates gathered Tuesday in a health research centre in the city’s rundown Hillbrow district.

Starting on day one of a three-day session, the tone was clear. ‘We want rights, not rescue,’ a young Kenyan woman declared, reading from a communique on behalf of the participants.

Citing Africa’s political liberation movements as a source of inspiration, the sex workers are forging a pan-African alliance to press their demands for full emancipation, including an end to the criminalization of their trade.

‘In Uganda, sex workers are treated like dogs,’ Daisy Makato, 27, who sells sex on the streets of Kampala, tells Deutsche Presse- Agentur dpa. ‘Some dogs have owners but we’re treated like those dirty dogs that move on the street.’

Orphaned at a young age, Daisy turned to sex for an income after getting pregnant at 17.

In some ways sex work has been good to Daisy. With her earnings – around 2,000 shillings (1 dollar) a client – she has built a house for herself and her nine-year-old daughter and pays schools fees for her younger brother and sister.

But the financial stability has come at a price.

A few years ago a rich client, a ‘big man in the government,’ she says, forced her to have unprotected sex and infected her with HIV/AIDS.

Daisy takes anti-retroviral drugs to slow the progression of the virus and insists on using condoms to prevent reinfection with another HIV strain. But, in a continent where many men balk at using a condom, protected sex can be a tough sell.

‘When I tell them I’m trying to protect them as well as myself, they say ‘you’re lying, you don’t look sick,” the round-faced Ugandan says, smoothing her glossy straight hair.

For the more hard-up, the extra money paid for ‘live sex’ can be hard to resist. In Zimbabwe, for example, where half the population of around 11 million is stalked by hunger, forgoing a condom can help a mother put more food on the table.

And protected sex can also be more expensive – for the sex worker. In Uganda, giving away free condoms is denounced by church leaders as ‘encouraging promiscuity.’ That forces some clinics and hospitals to slap a hefty price tag on the condoms donated by non-governmental organizations to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Ironically, while routinely being blamed for the spread of HIV, sex workers are often excluded from campaigns encouraging people to know their HIV status.

‘You can’t feel comfortable walking in there (to clinics),’ says Nelson, a 25-year-old sex worker from Namibia’s capital Windhoek, wearing neat bermuda shorts and flip-flops.

‘If you have a (sexually-transmitted) infection, they laugh among themselves and say it’s because you’re a sex worker.’

In the 12 years since he first began engaging in transactional sex, Nelson, who has ambitions of becoming a lawyer, says he has lost many colleagues to AIDS.

He hopes to get advice at the conference on setting up a hotline that sex workers can call, for example, when they get arrested.

Daisy has lost count of the number of times she’s been arrested for ‘idling,’ sometimes after denying a police officer free sex.

‘Sex work has always been around, and will always be around. That’s the reality,’ says Eric Harper, director of the Cape Town- based Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT). ‘The alliance is about listening to what sex workers are saying. They’re saying: ‘Let us decide for ourselves.”

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