Voices in the dark: Male and female sex workers speak out

The study gave male and female sex workers were given an opportunity to tell stories, their way PIC: FILE PIC
The study gave male and female sex workers were given an opportunity to tell stories, their way PIC: FILE PIC

A revealing new report commissioned by the Ministry of Health and Wellness has shone a light on the world of male and female sex workers, their numbers, how they started out, their loved ones, their customers and most importantly, the diseases they suffer and help they get. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI extracts some of the direct voices from those who spoke up in the study.

Between April 2017 and February 2018, researchers led by Ministry of Health and Wellness with several technical and financial partners, conducted interviews and group discussions with about 2,049 male and female sex workers as well as transgender people.

The study was aimed at uncovering the behavioural and biological trends around these groups which have been identified as being the most high-risk of HIV and Sexually Transmitted Illnesses (STIs). The study was the second since the pioneering effort in 2012 and this time around, it was widened to include transgender individuals.

For up to an hour in Gaborone, Francistown, Maun and Chobe, male and female sex workers as well as transgender people sat in groups of about ten, revealing their deepest secrets, the shame inflicted by society, the dangers and the coping mechanisms.

From the interviews and focus groups, each participant in the survey also submitted to blood, urine as well as vaginal and anal swabs as part of the biological part of the study to determine the trends of HIV and STIs within the groups.

Top anonymity was the order of the day in the interviews and focus groups, with no names or identifying information used. Compensation for participants ranged from P100 airtime, to transport refunds and snacks.

The participants, however, were only too willing to talk and share their experiences, shedding light on subjects “mainstream” society would rather pretend don’t exist.

Some of their verbatim comments follow:

“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 (such) that even if you get pregnant you won’t know who the father of the baby is. I know I have HIV. I don’t want to just have sex without a condom because I don’t want reinfection.” – Female sex worker, Gaborone 

“We are happy to use condoms but some client when they do not want to use a condom looking at how much money you can make, you just agree not to use a condom and just have sex so that you can get the money.” – Female sex worker,


“Sometimes you will not have a condom at all in the house, and looking at the fact that the client will go, you end up having sex without a condom.” – Female sex worker, Francistown 

“We are always drunk when we go to work and sometimes we don’t know what the situation is during sex.” – Female sex worker, Kasane 

“I think when you are a sex worker you are called by names, they do not look at you in a nice way when you pass. It is like you are a weed in the field; you are stigmatised when they realize you are a

female sex worker.” – Female sex worker, Maun 

“So sometimes with this kind of let’s drink first and go have fun, you end up just doing it. Like if the condom breaks then you just do it because the condom is already broken so just continue...” – Male who has sex with men (MSM), Maun 

“...Some I do not know if they are hyper or what they say [condoms] reduce the pleasure but I think mostly it is used for health reasons.” – Transgender, Gaborone

“The life of an MSM is difficult in Kasane. It is difficult because of how the village is. Kasane is just a developing township. It is still a village. Pople are not open minded to accept changes that are happening. They are still behind, they just know that a man must have sex with a woman and that’s it. That is how it should be.” MSM, Kasane 

“I have personally experienced that it has become better over the years because more than five years back people were hiding. For the last few years, I have seen people accepting themselves and letting their families know. It is not as rough as it used to be.” – MSM, Maun

“The behaviour can tell you a lot. The way we drink and the way we are involved in drugs. There is no normal human being that parties from the 1st up to 30th and you call it a lifestyle. You could find that it’s either there are a lot of issues underlining that, issues of acceptance, so many issues related to being a homosexual in Botswana. I think that is the only issue that bothers me, the psychological part of it.” –MSM, Maun 

According to researchers, the information gathered by the study will help government and its health partners to better plan and target programmes and interventions to reduce the spread of infection among the high-risk groups.

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