Measley wages drive workers into sex work

KANANELO BOLOETSE

MASERU - Sex workers have an HIV prevalence of 70 percent according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in Lesotho and this has been attributed in part to low wage levels in the textile and garment industry. Dr Alti Zwandor, UNAIDS Country director, indicated last week during a launch of Lesotho’s country profile (2017) by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) that sex workers had the highest rates of HIV in Lesotho in comparison to other key population groups.

“More than 70 percent of sex workers have contracted HIV. The prevalence is at 31 percent among prisoners,” Dr Zwandor said. These statistics were corroborated by the United States (US) President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) Lesotho Coordinator Aubrey Casey in an interview with Public Eye yesterday. Casey said according to the results of the PEPFAR supported Integrated Biological Behavioural Surveillance Study (BBSS) conducted in January 2015, female sex workers in Lesotho carried an increased burden of HIV compared to other adult women of reproductive age.

She said: “Of the female sex workers surveyed in Maseru and Maputsoe, 73.3 percent and 70.4 percent, respectively, were HIV positive.” She added that in the two districts where PEPFAR was providing Female Sex Workers (FSWs) services, antiretroviral treatment (ART) coverage was at 90 percent.

These statistics also dovetail neatly with the findings of Avert – a United Kingdom (UK)-based organisation working at the forefront of HIV education – which found that HIV prevalence was 50 times higher among sex workers than in the general population in Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi and South Africa. “In Lesotho, for example, where HIV prevalence among female sex workers was estimated at 71.9% in 2017, condom use with the sex worker’s last client stood at 64.9 percent,” Avert said in its report: Sex workers, HIV and AIDS published on August 9, 2018.

The Avert report also indicated that globally, sex workers made up nine percent of the total number of new HIV infections. It indicated further that in eastern and southern Africa, HIV prevalence among female sex workers was often extremely high. “In Eswatini (previously known as Swaziland), Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe more than 50 percent of sex workers are living with HIV,” it read.

The country report launched last week stated that: “… the continuing low wages levels are still pushing many female workers to look for alternative means to provide for their often large families.” It indicated that most garment workers were young women who migrated from rural zones to the Maseru and Leribe districts, the main garment factory areas. Those zones have the highest HIV prevalence rates, it further said.

“Interestingly, studies have shown that a large proportion of sex workers in those areas were originally garment workers,” it read. It added that with low pay and long working hours, women had little or no access to healthcare, including sexual and reproductive health. “This has inevitably contributed to the spread of HIV,” it said.

Casey told this paper that because many sex workers or women in transactional sex preferred not to come forward, “we do not have a national incidence among female sex workers but we are looking forward to the IBBS once completed to provide us with a national incidence”. She said through Global Fund support, the country will be conducting IBBS this year in four districts to determine an accurate figure for key populations, including female sex workers.

“The study will also evaluate the risk for HIV, STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections), and TB (Tuberculosis) among key populations, including characteristics, sexual behavioural patterns, access to services, stigma challenges, etc,” she said. Not only are sex workers regularly exposed to STIs and unplanned pregnancies, they also face social stigma, abuse from partners and violence from clients.

They are sometimes hauled off the streets in the middle of the night and arrested by police. Section 55 of the Lesotho Penal Code criminalises sex work or transactional sex. The Act states that: “A person who incites, instigates or engages or procures another to engage, either in Lesotho or elsewhere, in prostitution, commits an offence.”

It defines prostitute as “a person who engages in sexual activity for payment”. To minimise the risk of spreading HIV/AIDS among factory workers, the country profile recommended provision of access to quality healthcare and education and assurance of affordable housing around the textile and garment factory zones.It suggested that various targeted direct and indirect actions should be mounted.

“First, the organisation of HIV/AIDS awareness-raising sessions should be a requirement within the sector, as female migrants from rural areas are often the most vulnerable group partly because of the lack of such awareness. “Second, HIV testing and counselling should be free and easily accessible within the workplace. Finally, assuring children’s education costs and affordable housing, for example, by providing subsidies in the respective areas, could work as a deterrent to seeking alternative sources of income,” the report read.

Thousands of workers in June marched in Maseru and delivered a petition to Prime Minister Thomas Thabane demanding salary increments for all workers. The marchers, who comprised factory workers, security guards and general workers from the retail and catering sectors, wanted a 15 percent increment for all workers.They also demanded government to reinforce a minimum wage agreement that would guarantee at least M2 000 monthly salary for factory workers.

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