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Sex workers in Zambia helped by local grassroots organisations

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Summary of story from the Global Press Institute, January 12, 2012

The Tasintha Programme, a grassroots non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Zambia, is one of several working towards eliminating sex work and HIV/AIDS in Zambia.

According to the World Bank, nearly 70 per cent of the population in Zambia lives below the national poverty level.

HIV incidence is 13.5 per cent for the 15-49 age bracket, and more common among women.

This is the context in which Tasintha operates, offering health education and career training for women who want to leave the sex industry.

Sex work in Zambia takes various forms: so-called “white collar” work, for those who have jobs but take on sex work in secret; “hard-core” sex work, where women solicit mostly foreigners and tourists in hotels, clubs and bars; and child sex work, undertaken by children as young as 12 years old.

Tasintha means “deeper transformation” in Chewa, a Zambian language. It offers sex workers counseling, skills training, vocational school placement and HIV prevention resources through its medical clinic.

Lucy Bwalya, Tasintha programmes officer, says the NGO has helped 7,000 female sex workers in Lusaka since 1992, of whom about 60 per cent left sex work. She says 120 died from diseases including HIV.

Operations officer Kunda Matipa says that recruiting sex workers into Tasintha’s programmes is not easy, because the need for financial earnings from sex work often outweighs health and safety concerns.

“At times during the process of recruitment, we have to pretend to be a sex worker,” Matipa says. “Or if you are a man, you have to pretend to be buying sex.”

Clara is a case in point. The 28-year-old entered the sex industry after the deaths of her parents, and on becoming a single parent herself.

“I do this for my little girl,” she says. “I provide for her through this, and I make about 400,000 kwacha [$80] in a day.”

Clara tries to ensure that her clients always use condoms for HIV prevention, but they do not always agree.

“For me, I know about HIV, and I always do my best to avoid getting this disease,” she says. “And, you know, it is not easy because at times we get clients who don’t want to use a condom, and actually there are times when our clients even rape us.”

Amos Mwale, executive director of Youth Vision Zambia, an NGO providing sexual and reproductive health information and services to young people, says programmes such as theirs should include sex workers in their target population.

He said, “If sex workers are knowledgeable about sexual reproductive health issues and are aware about where they can access sexual reproductive health services, then they will be able to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and AIDS as well as unwanted pregnancies.”

While NGOs such as Tasintha offer sex workers skills and resources to leave the life, many young women still find prostitution is one of few available sources of income, given Zambia’s high levels of poverty.

The country’s new President, Michael Sata, who took office in September 2011, has said the government is committed to creating education and employment opportunities for young girls who might otherwise become sex workers.

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