JOHANNESBURG, 17 November 2009 (PlusNews) - A plan by Malawi to
offer prostitutes low-interest loans to start small businesses in
return for abandoning sex work is generating controversy in a
country where women are disproportionately affected by high rates
of poverty and HIV.
"Most [sex workers] leave school at an early age, get pregnant,
and then have to provide for a child, so they end up on the
streets as a way to earn a bit of money," said Ayam Maeresa,
special assistant to the Minister of Gender, Children and
Community Development, Patricia Kaliati, who proposed the plan
after discussions with sex workers, most of whom said they had
been driven into prostitution by poverty.
The plan aims to economically empower female sex workers and
reduce the spread of HIV, but critics question whether it can
achieve either of these goals when there are so few opportunities
for Malawian women to earn more than they do from prostitution.
"If we help them to get out of this trade, we'll also be helping
to control the spread of HIV," Maeresa told IRIN/PlusNews. He was
vague about what type of businesses the women would be encouraged
to set up, saying only that several NGOs had indicated they would
provide business management training.
Rehabilitation approach flawed
Many initiatives in Africa have made attempts to help sex workers
find alternative sources of income without much long-term
success. None of the sex workers in Botswana, Namibia and South
Africa interviewed in a recent study
by the Open Society Institute (OSI) had found jobs after completing what the authors
called "rehabilitation" programmes.
"They offer women an alternative job in another part of the
informal economy that is equally if not more unpredictable, and
often leads to the women earning much less money," said Vivienne
Mentor-Lalu of the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce
(SWEAT), a Cape Town-based NGO that lobbies for the rights of sex
Research by SWEAT found that a South African woman with primary
school education could earn up to four times more doing sex work
than any other job she would be eligible for, if she could find a
job in a country with around 25 percent unemployment.
"In South Africa we have this phenomenon where men stand on the
side of the road selling their labour, and women stand on the
side of the road selling sex," said Mentor-Lalu, who was worried
that programmes steering women away from sex work were often less
concerned with economic empowerment and reducing HIV risk than
promoting a conservative moral agenda.
The OSI report suggested that the popularity of such
interventions was linked to restrictions on foreign funding that
undermined rights-based approaches favoured by the sex workers.
Organisations that receive funding from the US President's
Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), for example, are
required to sign an "anti-prostitution pledge" that they will not
support or promote sex work.
Marlise Richter, a South Africa-based researcher, said the
requirement had "a chilling effect" on efforts to support sex
workers' rights. "Sex workers don't need to be rehabilitated,
they need to be given skills and a safe working environment. I
can see there's a place for exit programmes and microloans, but
you're not dealing with the underlying system."
Rights not rescue
In most of Africa, as in the rest of the world, the underlying
system is one that criminalises sex work, making it difficult for
sex workers to access health services or to report abuse at the
hands of clients, pimps and even police.
As host of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, South Africa is ahead of much
of the rest of continent in starting to debate the merits of
decriminalising sex work, a move supported by the National AIDS
Council. "Increasingly, there's recognition that you can't begin
to look at sex work and HIV if you don't look at sex workers'
rights," said Mentor-Lalu.
Explaining how the abuse of those rights could contribute to HIV
infections, she cited the practice of police confiscating condoms
from sex workers; of having to pay fines, when arrested, which
made the women more likely to agree to unprotected sex for a
higher fee; the marginalisation of prostitutes that prevented
them from accessing health services.
Rather than addressing any of these issues, the Malawian plan
would penalise women who returned to prostitution after accepting
a loan from the government. "If it becomes a law, that will be
one of the conditions," the gender ministry's Maeresa confirmed.
"If you return to the streets, it [sex work] becomes a criminal
The Reproductive Health & HIV Research Unit (RHRU) of the
University of Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa, have
adopted a more flexible approach with their "Beauty Shack"
project for sex workers from the inner-city neighbourhood of
After completing training in beauty therapy at a local health
spa, the women are encouraged to give up sex work and start
businesses or seek jobs, but if they choose not to they can still
participate in the programme as peer educators, earning a monthly
stipend of US$134.
Nonhlanhla Motlokoa of RHRU, who coordinates the "Beauty Shack"
project, is optimistic that it will be more successful than
previous initiatives offering training in cooking and sewing.
Although some of the women "are scared to take that leap", two
have already secured full-time jobs at the spa where they were
trained, while others are enthusiastic about the possibility of
starting small businesses.
RHRU also operates a mobile clinic that provides condoms, HIV
counselling and testing, and treatment of sexually transmitted
infections at hotels where the women live and work.
Researcher Richter applauded RHRU's public-health approach, but
insisted that "The bottom line is the criminalisation of sex work
that results in stigma and abuse," and that only legal reform
could address the gender-based violence and lack of legal
recourse that put sex workers at most risk of HIV.