Portrait of the sex trade

'Lady of the Night' in action PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
'Lady of the Night' in action PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES

Some people say it is the ‘oldest profession in the world’. Others disagree saying it is actually the ‘oldest oppression in the world’. Well, sex work might not be a regular job, but many people right here in Botswana are doing it.

So who are these people?  Where are they?  Why are they in the sex trade? What do they need? Who are the johns?  How do they do it? How much are their services?  How has HIV affected them?

The Ministry of Health and Wellness in collaboration with USAID, PEPFAR, ACHAP, LINKAGES and FHI360 recently revealed the results of one of their most in-depth studies answering these difficult questions.

The report, entitled Behavioral and Biological Surveillance Survey of HIV/STI among select high-risk sub-populations (sex workers and men having sex with other men) in Botswana, was done in 2017. The study involved a survey of a sample population of more than 4,000 female sex workers in Gaborone, Francistown, Maun, Palapye and Chobe. The research provides impressive data for comparative analysis with a similar 2012 survey.

Statistics from the 2017 survey suggest that the average sex worker in Botswana is an unemployed 30-year-old Motswana woman, with a junior secondary school certificate, living with her family and in a relationship with a boyfriend. Gaborone has, on average, the oldest sex workers of about 35 years of age.

According to the study, around 94.4% of all the female sex workers are Batswana while Zimbabweans account for only 5.6 percent. The trend between the 2012 and 2017 report shows that Batswana female sex workers increased by 28.9% during that period.

The report says, “many female sex workers describe themselves as the breadwinner of their family and feel that sex work is necessary in order to provide for their children”.

Although the majority of the female sex workers reported to have attained only junior secondary certificate, there was a significant increase of those who have reached tertiary education level.  The report shows that the unemployment rate of sex workers is still high at 58.1%.

On their relationship status, 15.8% of the female sex workers are either married or living with a sex partner. Although boyfriends were the most common form of current partner (at 53.1% of respondents), the data shows that Francistown has the highest number of married female sex workers.

 Countrywide, about 60% of sex workers live with their families, 24% live alone while 11% live with a partner.  “In most cases, the female sex workers’ family (parents, partner, and children) did not know that they were engaged in sex work.  In most cases, parents or partner are aware that the woman goes to bars, but assume it is for social reasons,” reads the report.

Data shows that most of the sex workers broke their virginity at the age of 18-years-old and earned their pay from commercial sex at the age of 24.  The average duration of their sex trade is 6.4 years. Gaborone has a significantly higher number of experienced sex workers with an average of 8.1 years in the trade.

The 2017 data shows that an average amount per sex round with a Motswana sex worker was P298.  This means the sex price tripled since 2012, when it was only P94, on average, to ‘get laid’.  The cheapest sex workers are in Gaborone city with an average price of P187 per round of sex, while the most expensive ladies (of the night) are from Chobe, at an average price of P435 per round followed by Maun with P353. Palapye ladies ‘sell’ (sex) at an average of P271, which is pricier than both Gaborone and Francistown.

As the price of sex has shot up, the average number of clients has significantly dropped. The biggest difference happened in Francistown where sex workers used to service an average of eight clients in a week in 2012, while in 2017 they could only service a handful of five customers.

The report says 87% of last clients were cited as Batswana men, followed by five percent of Zimbabweans and 3.5 percent as Zambians.  Truck drivers were the most common clients (at 34%) for female sex workers in Chobe, while mine workers were a major client group in Palapye (at 34.5%).  Zambians are said to be the biggest clients for female sex workers in Chobe at 24.5%.

The findings indicate that sex workers’ clients are mainly found in bars.  Over 81% of all the sex workers courted their client at a bar.  However, in Gaborone there has been an increase in street clients from 9.6 percent to 19.8% of total clients.

 Interestingly Francistown sex workers have seen a significant drop of street clients from 34.4% in 2012 to 13.9% in 2017. Out of all the female sex workers surveyed, 67.9% have reported having serviced a regular client in the past week while 53.2% said it was a one-time client.

The report says less than half of all the sex workers surveyed, 47.9%, are not consistently using condoms.  The survey has revealed that consistent use of condoms has dropped for all partner types, who include one-time clients, regular clients and boyfriend. Sex workers interviewed said more money is the biggest reason for having unprotected sex with clients.

 Clients are said to be offering more money to sex workers to ditch the condom and have unprotected sex.  “Sometimes it’s money because when they don’t use a condom we charge more. You will just be looking at the money forgetting that you have to protect yourself,” one female sex worker from Gaborone is quoted in the report.

Interestingly, 7.8 percent of sex workers in 2017 said the reason they are not consistently using a condom is because they ‘don’t like it’. In 2012, the figure was only 0.8 percent who gave that reason.

The report indicates that more sex workers are now offering anal sex three times more than they were doing in 2012.

Francistown in particular had an increase with over 68% of sex workers saying their last service was anal sex.  Data also shows that condom use with anal sex has generally dropped from 57.5% to 46.1%.  Gaborone has, however, seen a slight increase in condom use during anal sex.

In 2017 there was a slight overall decrease in experiences of forced sex from 2012 (15.5% versus 18.6%).  Forced sex, however remains high in Francistown, affecting about one in four sex workers in a year.  Data shows that one-time clients are the main perpetrators of forced sex.

Female sex workers also reported having complicated social relationships within their sex workers’ community. Even though they have camaraderie relations as they provide an emotional support for each other, they also have occasional fights over clients.

The report shows that there has been a slight decrease (61.9% in 2012 to 53.4% in 2017) in the HIV prevalence among all sex workers. A significant decline was observed in Francistown where an HIV prevalence of 53.5% was recorded in 2012 down to 37% in 2017. The report also shows that HIV prevalence steadily increases by age group. Younger ages of sex workers have seen the most HIV prevalence declines between 2012 and 2017.

In terms of other sexually transmitted diseases, chlamydia was the most prevalent affecting 16.1% of the all sex workers, followed by syphilis at 9.4% percent.  Chlamydia prevalence and Hepatitis B were highest in Maun, while syphilis prevalence was highest in Palapye.

Chobe experienced a significant increase in gonorrhea and chlamydia, while Francistown experienced a significant increase in syphilis and a significant decline in gonorrhea.

Data shows that access to treatment for those who knew their status improved drastically from 2012, jumping to 88% from 25%. The 2017 study says 99% of sex workers who are on ARV therapy reported taking their ARVs every day.

Generally sex workers understand their occupational hazards.  One sex worker from Gaborone is quoted in the report saying: “Every job has its risks. Our job is dangerous, so if you respect yourself you will know your health comes first. Sometimes you can meet three brothers per day so even if you get pregnant you won’t know who the father of the baby is.”

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