A profession doesn’t determine worth, regardless of what’s stipulated in the law.
While vulnerable populations in Africa are hardly afforded basic respect and dignity; sex workers face even greater barriers. In attempts to eradicate sex work in Lesotho the government has passed a law that criminalises prostitution. Thus, sex workers face constant abuse from government officials and the public at large. They are confronted with discrimination and stigma and are often beat up, raped and harassed.
Criminalisation of prostitution puts the lives of sex workers at risk. It encourages violation of an array of human rights where they are denied access to various services the average citizen is ordinarily entitled to. These include equal treatment before the law, and access to health services and HIV treatment. Although there is varying opinion, especially when considering diverse cultural and religious beliefs regarding the appropriateness of the profession, these beliefs should not be permitted to disqualify sex workers from their right to respect, dignity, and access.
We spoke to seven survivors. Their stories have similar traits.
Delicious, a 28-year-old sex worker from Mafeteng in Lesotho has worked in the industry for three years. She spoke to how many of her colleagues work under a constant state of duress. Their fear of being harassed by the police causes them to meet with clients in unsafe locations where they run the risk of being physically attacked and beaten. “Clients dominate the process because they treat us like objects. Most of the time they refuse to use condoms and others refuse to pay us after the act. Sometimes when you tell the client to stop, he refuses,” she said – her voice breaking.
Sex workers often don’t report violence to the police as it may open them up to abuse in that space. But many, in fact all the sex workers interviewed, can speak to experiences of gang rape and physical abuse at the hands of the police. They consider police as perpetrators and abusers.
Seven, a 23-year-old from Maseru speaks about how one Friday night in April 2016 she was forced into a police van and driven to an isolated place. There were three officers in the van, including the driver. They were verbally violent towards her throughout the drive, hurling insults. When the van eventually stopped they dragged her out.
“All three officers raped me but I put up a serious fight. I was injured. Afterwards they even took all the money I had worked for that day.” Tears welled in her eyes as she showed us the scars on her legs. “I was left there, alone ‘til morning.”
Seven did not feel that she could report this violation to the police. She feared it would put her life in worse danger. “There is no use going there. We are treated like trash.”
Another sex worker from Maseru recalled a traumatic experience at the discovery that two of her colleagues were found dead. No arrests were made. “We knew who the suspect was – the man they were last seen with. He was in the habit of assaulting us badly after having sex with us. It was painful losing people so close to us. It was worse because the murderer got away with it. We also felt guilty because we were afraid to share this information with police,” said Shorty, 27.
Police routinely refuse or ignore rape cases involving sex workers, especial if they involve other police officers. She added, “The sad part is that sometimes we are able to identify the perpetrators but nothing is done to punish them. In July last year, five police officers took me and my friend to Mohakare River. They ordered us to remove our clothes. They threw us into the water. We were freezing.”
She say that she finally manage to escape and ran away barefoot, leaving her friend behind. “For two weeks afterwards I was confined to bed feeling very sick. This was just one of many incidents of abuse by the police. They happen almost every day but no one protects us.”
The sex workers cited numerous incidents of discrimination and stigma experiences at the hands of their communities. This even seeps into health care – or lack thereof, which they receive. They indicated unmet health needs at public hospitals and clinics. Speaking of how they are often denied diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted infections.
“Once people know what we do they call us names. We are called Likuena (meaning prostitutes). I come from a very religious family and I cannot disclose what I am doing. I have suffered.” Lebo, 43, lives in Maseru. She shared her experience annoyed at the injustice: Once I was not feeling well so I visited a hospital. While at the centre I met one of my clients who was working there as a nurse.
“Next thing I knew I found myself surrounded by nurses posing questions at me, like: ‘Why would you choose to be a sex worker at such a young age?’ Even patients got on my case – pointing their fingers at me. I stormed out crying. Without treatment.”
It was when Lebo, who has been in the industry for several years, shared the experience with her colleagues that she learnt about muti as an alternative since she was struggling to access her anti-retro viral drugs (ARVs). Using it became common practice whenever she got sick. “I stopped my HIV treatment and got very sick as a result. But things have change. The situation is different now.”
Care for Basotho, an organisation protecting the rights of sex workers in Lesotho has arranged with Lesotho Planned Parenthood Association to provide health services to sex workers. “And they treat us with respect,” she said.
The sex workers sharing their experiences are in agreement that the decriminalisation of sex work will create a conducive environment. Importantly it will also mean that they will have access to justice because it will be easier for them to report the violence perpetuated against them. Sex workers, like all other citizens, deserve protection from violence.