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Organization Works to Rehabilitate Sex Workers in Zambia

Global Press Institute - Mon, 9 Jan 2012 10:00 GMT
Author: Global Press Institute
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LUSAKA, ZAMBIA - Comfort Mwansa, 26, says she is working on rebuilding her life after leaving the sex industry in Lusaka, Zambia's capital. The middle daughter in a family of three children, Mwansa says her parents' divorce followed by the deaths of her mother and her sisters drove her into sex work. Shortly after her parents divorced, her mother died of an illness. Three years later, her older and younger sisters died of illnesses too. Missing her mother and sisters, Mwansa says she used to talk to neighbors and friends from school about what was bothering her. She says she then started to frequent bars and clubs with her peers. She started to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes, and she says she eventually became addicted. "While all this was happening, my father was not there for me," Mwansa says. "He never checked on me or bothered to find out what was happening in my life. I dropped out of school and continued drinking more and more." At the bars, older men would approach her and offer her large sums of money in exchange for sex. At first, she would shy away, but she says she eventually gave in. Shortly after joining the sex industry, Mwansa says she started enjoying the money she was getting and never looked back. She says that she didn't use the money to buy food or other necessities. "I was using the money to buy jewelry, cloth[es] and cosmetics for my hair, beers and cigarettes," she says. Her father eventually found out she was a sex worker. "When my father found out about what I was doing from the neighbors in the compound where I was staying, he was heartbroken," she says. "I remember seeing him crying." But he didn't try to stop her. "After some time, he accepted that I was a sex worker and did not speak about it," Mwansa says. "He just let me be." Mwansa says she began thinking about quitting the sex industry only after staff members approached her from Tasintha Programme, a grassroots nongovernmental organization that aims to eliminate commercial sex work and HIV and AIDS in Zambia. "I only thought about stopping sex work when workers from Tasintha Programme found me one evening and told me about their program," Mwansa says. When Mwansa joined Tasintha, she underwent psychological and spiritual counseling and learned various life skills, such as hunger management, nutrition and HIV prevention. She says she eventually wanted to stop smoking and drinking. "It was not easy for me to change my ways," she says. "At first, I would even have relapses. It is hard to change. You have to be determined, and it took determination to reach where I am today." She says she no longer has sex with men for money. "I am now able to say no to a man," she says with a smile on her face. She says she thanks God and the staff at Tasintha. "God has also been there for me," she says. "He has been good to me. I really thank Tasintha for helping me. I have been empowered in a lot of ways because of Tasintha." In addition to quitting sex work, Mwansa has also received skills training from Tasintha in order to start a new career. She received training in tailoring, poultry farming, and information and communication technology. During her free time, Mwansa makes and sells doormats. She uses the profits from the mats to sustain herself. "Through Tasintha, I started to appreciate myself and see potential in myself," Mwansa says. "Tasintha has been good to me and has never condemned me." Mwansa also now goes to school. She says she is determined to work hard and improve her life and the lives of her future family. "I want to work hard and make sure that the children I will have in the future will have everything they need," she says. An NGO in Lusaka has rehabilitated thousands of sex workers, offering them counseling and skills training. But some sex workers say that poverty and family responsibilities leave them with few other options to earn a living. Other organizations aim to make sure these workers have the information and resources to protect themselves from HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Citizens call on the government to expand education and employment opportunities for young women, which the new administration has pledged to do. Nearly 70 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line in Zambia, according to the World Bank. The HIV prevalence is 13.5 percent among adults ages 15 to 49, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. Women here are more likely to be living with HIV than men. There are different categories of sex workers in Zambia, according to Tasintha. There are "white-collar sex workers," who are educated and have jobs yet also secretly engage in sex work. There are also "hard-core sex workers," who work in hotels, lodges, clubs and bars, are usually targeted by foreigners and tourists and frequently use drugs. Another category of sex workers is children, who start sex work as early as 12 years old. Tasintha is one organization that is working to rehabilitate sex workers in Zambia. "Tasintha" means "deeper transformation" in Chewa, a Zambian language. Tasintha's programming promotes rehabilitation, recovery and restoration of sex workers, as well as HIV prevention mechanisms. The organization also has its own clinic with a resident nurse from Monday to Friday and a doctor who visits the center twice a week. Lucy Bwalya, Tasintha's programs officer, says that the organization has recruited and provided skills training to 7,000 female sex workers in Lusaka since 1992. Of these, about 60 percent of them left sex work, and 120 died because of HIV and other diseases. Kunda Matipa, Tasintha's operations officer, says that recruiting sex workers on the street to stop sex work and join Tasintha is a challenge. He says that sex workers are usually unwilling to leave the fast money that they can make in the industry. "At times during the process of recruitment, we have to pretend to be a sex worker," he says of the female staff members. "Or if you are a man, you have to pretend to be buying sex." When recruited by Tasintha, the sex workers enter a counseling and rehabilitation program. Some attend vocational schools, while others receive training in various skills, such as tailoring, poultry farming and brickmaking. Some women say that the high poverty levels in Zambia have forced them into sex work in order to make ends meet. Clara, 28, who declined to give her full name for privacy reasons, has been a sex worker for the past 10 years. She says that hardship and poverty drove her into sex work. "I have never known my father, and my mother died when I was 16 years old," she says. "And when my uncle took me in, he did not take care of me." Shortly after her mother's death in 1999, she became pregnant. Her uncle chased her from his home upon finding out about her pregnancy. "The father of my daughter refused the pregnancy and disappeared," she says. For some time, Clara stayed with friends, who helped her to look after her baby. She says these friends later introduced her to sex work so she could earn money to support her daughter. "I do this for my little girl," Clara says. "I provide for her through this, and I make about 400,000 kwacha [${esc.dollar}80] in a day." She says that she doesn't go looking for clients, but that the clients find her. "Let me tell you, the men who come to us are decent men, sometimes married, and they say that they want some adventure, you know, something new," she says. "They come to us themselves." Clara says she does her best to protect herself from HIV and AIDS by using condoms. But she says that clients don't always comply. "For me, I know about HIV, and I always do my best to avoid getting this disease," she says. "And, you know, it is not easy because at times we get clients who don't want to use a condom, and actually there are times when our clients even rape us." She says that some sex workers don't realize that condoms can protect against HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Some think condoms are only to prevent pregnancy. For this reason, Amos Mwale, executive director of Youth Vision Zambia, an NGO that provides sexual and reproductive health information and services to youth, says that sexual and reproductive health sensitization programs must not leave sex workers out. He says that sex workers must receive education on HIV prevention methods so that they are able to make informed decisions about their bodies. "Everyone should be included in sexual reproductive health sensitization initiatives, even sex workers and prostitutes," he says. "If sex workers are knowledgeable about sexual reproductive health issues and are aware about where they can access sexual reproductive health services, then they will be able to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and AIDS as well as unwanted pregnancies." Others voice concern that sex work harms Zambia's status as a Christian nation. Patrick Chileshe, a businessman in Lusaka, says that exchanging sex for money or gifts is unchristian. He says that no one should use sex to escape poverty. Instead, he encourages young women to use their skills and talents to start entrepreneurial ventures and avoid hazardous activities, such as sex work. Chileshe calls upon the Zambian government to create more employment and educational opportunities for women. "It is hoped that the recently elected government of Zambia can increase employment opportunities for young women in the country so as to reduce prostitution levels," Chileshe says. President Michael Sata, who took office in September 2011, has pledged to create more employment opportunities for young people and for women as part of his poverty-alleviation strategies. Officials from the Ministry of Health said they declined to comment because of the sensitivity of the topic. They directed all questions to the minister, who was out of the country. The Gender in Development and Child Division of the Cabinet Office also has not responded to interview requests.

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