Sex workers in Burundi have more negotiating power to demand safer sex, thanks to efforts to help them find new ways of earning an income.
Since 2013, the Link Up project has been giving sex workers small loans to help them start up income generating activities. These include selling fruit, vegetables, fish, bedsheets and shoes.
Forty sex workers, grouped into four areas in Rumonge Province in eastern Burundi, have each received a total of 100,000 Burundian francs (US$50) to buy stock for their small businesses.
“Business will help sex workers to lean and rely on themselves and be independent,” said the Link Up coordinator for Rumonge, Jeanne d’Arc Kabanga.
This new source of income is helping the women improve their living conditions and gives them more say when it comes to insisting their clients use a condom.
Risk of losing clients
“I need his money, he needs my services,” said Francine, one of the sex workers who has benefited from the capital. “But before we had the income generating activities, we were not rushing to use of condoms.”
According to the sex workers, the majority of the women who go into sex work do so because of poverty. They want to be able to provide for their families and for their children.
The problem is that although there is a relationship of interdependence between the sex worker and her client, the sex workers’ greater need for money puts them at a disadvantage. This lack of autonomy means it is difficult for them to impose condoms on clients who do not want to use them, because there is a risk of losing them.
HIV prevalence among sex workers
According to the 2014 PLACE (Priorities for Local AIDS Control Efforts) study by the National Council for the Fight Against AIDS, there is a higher HIV prevalence among sex workers than in the general population.
The number of female sex workers in Burundi is estimated at 51,482, with HIV prevalence among this group estimated at 21.9 per cent. In addition, there is low condom use among this population group, with only 45 per cent of sex workers saying they used a condom with their last client, according to the same study.
But things are starting to change, thanks to the project. “Health and protection! Above all that is our slogan!” said Amina, a peer educator and sex worker who is well-known and influential in the Rumonge area, during a discussion group for sex workers.
Empowered to demand condoms
As well as providing small loans, the project also educates sex workers on how to use condoms and other contraceptives methods.
The three-year Link Up project ended in July 2016, having improved sexual and reproductive health and rights among more than one million young people in five countries, including Burundi.
The income generating activities mean the women are less dependent on sex work, enabling them to accept clients only if they agree to use a condom.
“If my client refuses to wear a condom, I let him go because now I am independent,” whispered Joselyne one of the sex workers
“Now I’m lucky. I have enough to eat and clothe myself with profits from my business,” added Emelyne, who is also peer educator. “If the customer drops prevention, I also lose them.”