BLANTYRE, Malawi, Nov 09, 2012 (AFP) - Malawi's estimated 20,000 sex workers have united to fight harassment and improve access to health care, launching a registered alliance on Friday.
"(The) time has come for you to discuss your issues, how the police and courts treat you and how you can access sexual and reproductive health services without any hassles," human rights lawyer Chrispin Sibande told 50 of his prostitute clients at the launch.
The grouping -- backed by local and international non-governmental organisations -- is the first formal alliance of sex workers in the poor southern African nation, where prostitution is decriminalised.
The country's sex workers are often arrested by police and charged with minor offences such as being found idle and disorderly conduct which carry fines.
Three years ago, some 14 sex workers were detained by police and forced to undergo HIV tests.
The prostitutes, who all tested positive, were charged with trading in sex while having a sexually transmitted disease. They were fined $7 (K1,200) and set free.
They later sued the government for violations of their privacy in a case that has yet to be heard by the high court.
Health experts say HIV prevalence among prostitutes is around 70 percent. Advocates hope that the alliance can help address the epidemic.
Mary Kumbweza Banda, who chairs the National AIDS Commission, said empowering sex workers could spell "high condom use, increased HIV testing, screening for diseases and increased access to anti-retroviral therapy."
She said more access to the services "will in the long run contribute to reduction of new infections."
AIDS-ravaged Malawi has over one million of its 14 million citizens infected by HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, and some 350,000 people receive free life-prolonging drugs, up from 5,000 in 2004.
As many as 50,000 new infections are reported every year, health experts say.