How will young sex workers benefit from new development goals?

As world leaders adopt new sustainable development goals this week, whether young marginalised people will really benefit from the gender equality and health goals remains to be seen.

As world leaders adopt new sustainable development goals this week, whether young marginalised people will really benefit from the gender equality and health goals remains to be seen.

Currently, for young women working in Malawi’s sex industry, the legal system creates barriers to health services and leads to discrimination.

Four years ago, Annie (name changed) faced a difficult moment for a person of her age. At 19 she had left her home village in Ntcheu because her parents were too poor to support her. Hoping for a better life, she moved to live with her aunt, a businesswoman who was living in Ndirande, a township in Blantyre.

“My aunt left me alone in the house after I had been staying there for a month, leaving me behind with nothing,” she says. She adds that she got into sex work because she had no other way of earning a living. “I had no choice,” she explains, while soothing her one-year-old daughter who has started crying.

Annie says the biggest challenge she and her friends face while working is not the clients or cold nights, as many people might think, but the authorities.

“The police arrest us when they see us loitering beyond nine o’clock in the evening. They say it’s against the law. Sometimes we spend up to a month in a cell when we don’t have money to pay for bail.”

She adds that discrimination and stigma forces her to keep her work secret, which makes it difficult for her to meet her own and her daughter’s basic health needs.

Legal barriers to healthcare

According to the Malawi National AIDS Commission, over a million Malawians are living with HIV and out of these, 310,000 are young people below the age of 24. HIV prevalence among young people aged 15-24 is 3.6 per cent, with highest rates registered in girls at 5.2 per cent. UNAIDS’ 2015 Malawi AIDS progress report (page 38) cites a much higher HIV prevalence among female sex workers of around 25 per cent.

Zinenani Majawa, publicity secretary for Malawi Sex Workers Alliance, says it is difficult for sex workers to access health services in the current environment. She cites rogue and vagabond laws which give the police power to arrest anyone loitering in public places at night. The organisation is currently lobbying for an end to these laws, which effectively criminalise sex workers.

Majawa adds that most sex workers have babies and when they are arrested the child can be left behind, locked in the house, until the mother released.

“When the child is on HIV treatment, it’s difficult to trust your friend with the information so that they can take care of the child when the mother is in the cell,” she adds. “With the current public opinion regarding sex work, you feel insecure to tell even your neighbour what you do for a living.”

Sex workers forced underground

Badilika Foundation is another organisation in Malawi which helps sex workers like Annie. Forbes Msiska, executive director, says: “The current legal environment which criminalises sex workers has driven them underground, making them a hard to reach population. Sex workers cannot freely access justice and other social services compared to the rest of the population.

“Stigma and discrimination remain a major barrier for them to access information and services. The foundation conducts campaigns through media, sensitisation sessions and meetings with key stakeholders to talk about promoting and protecting human rights of sex workers.”

He explains that the main driving force that contributes to women and girls entering the sex trade is poverty. To address this, the foundation provides vocational skills training and loans for businesses. It also provides education support to children of sex workers.

Government response

Ministry of Health spokesperson Adrian Chikumbe points out that reproductive health services are freely available to everyone including sex workers, but says that some laws in the country pose challenges to marginalised groups.

He argues that there is no law in Malawi directly criminalising sex work, saying these workers are caught up with the rogue and vagabond law.

Chikumbe adds that the Ministry its working with different organisations in the country to ensure marginalised groups can access health services.

“At first hospitals were asking people, including sex workers, to bring their ‘partner’ when found with sexually transmitted infections, but now we just give out a notification so that he or she can easily access treatment as well,” says Chikumbe. He says this is to ensure that nobody is discriminated against or marginalised.

But as long as young sex workers like Annie continue to face arrest and imprisonment, they will remain hard to reach.

“The economic empowerment of sex workers is essential because it provides independence and reduces their vulnerability to poverty and HIV,” says Msiska. “However, it is only after the arrest of sex workers stops that their health and that of their children will be addressed.”

He adds that discriminatory laws need to be changed if Malawi is to achieve the UN’s new goals around gender equality and ensuring healthy lives among all people, which must include the most marginalised.

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