Surviving on the proceeds of prostitution

Zim sex workers prowling a red light district
Zim sex workers prowling a red light district

FRANCISTOWN: Prostitution, often called the oldest profession, may very well be as old as humanity itself. In fact, this profession is even captured in the Holy Bible. The book of Joshua 2: 1 reads: “Then Joshua the son of Nun sent two men as spies secretly from Shittim. ‘Go, look over the land’, he said, ‘especially Jericho’. So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there”.

In all Southern African countries prostitution or sex work, as it is sometimes referred to, is illegal. The economies of most Southern African countries are intertwined meaning that what happens in one of the countries may be felt across the region.

The political situation in neighbouring Zimbabwe is a classic example following the disputed 2008 presidential elections that many believed Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) won, handing ZANU-PF its first electoral defeat since independence from colonial master, Britain.  As a result of the contested elections, many Zimbabweans crossed the border in search of better opportunities.  However, the trek for such opportunities began long before then when it became apparent that they were few and far in between.  So many Zimbabweans in the diaspora eked a living in neighbouring countries, where some could only find menial work.

In Botswana some of the Zimbabwean women survived by exchanging sex for money. In 2000 it was common to see the Zimbabwean women lining the busy streets of Francistown selling their arguably most treasured part for money.

In an interview with Mmegi recently, Margaret Khumalo (not her real name), a harlot at the low-income area of Itekeng or Area W, said she came to Botswana around 2007 after the economy in Zimbabwe tailspun into chaos.

The 27-year-old woman said that lack of job opportunities back home forced her to come to Botswana to earn a living.

“To be frank I don’t like what I am doing.  Circumstances beyond my control forced me to do this.  I have to support family and two young children back home,” said Khumalo, whose face is worn from worry lines. Khumalo’s Roman Catholic beliefs are brazenly at odds with her way of life. She is an illegal immigrant whose coming into Botswana is a big risk. She said: “I grew up in a very religious family. I am not proud of what I am doing. But there is nothing I can do. I have to survive,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.

Khumalo said she and her colleagues normally charge their clients P100 if the client does not use a condom, and P30 for a round if a client uses a condom. She stated that their clients are different adding that they even have some Indians who pay a lot of money for sex the whole night.

Interestingly, Khumalo said there are some residents of Itekeng, especially old women who are always complaining about their trade at Kgotla meetings whenever an opportunity arises. “Although what we are doing may be contrary to African cultural norms, Batswana should understand that we have to make a living and feed our families. Some Batswana are also doing what we do, although our main undoing is that we go to shopping complexes and line the streets to sell our product while some Batswana women trade sex for alcohol,” said Khumalo.

Asked if it is true that some prostitutes collect semen after sex in order to sell to some traditional doctors in Zimbabwe, Khumalo said: “I have read about that in newspapers, but I am not aware of any of my colleagues who are doing that.  Our clients are free to take their condoms for disposal if they think that we are selling their semen to traditional doctors”. She stated that they sometimes face a challenge of some customers who do not want to pay for services rendered. “There are some who are disrespectful and sometimes threaten to beat us or report us to the police because they know that most of us do not have passports.  To counter this, some of the colleagues demand for money before we go to have sex,” said Khumalo.

The other challenge, Khumalo added, is police who periodically raid places they rent before deporting them to Zimbabwe.

“Some officers are in the habit of asking us to bribe them in order to evade deportation. In some circumstances they ask us to give them sex for free to avoid deportation. We have to comply with their demands because there is nothing we can do lest we are deported,” said Khumalo, adding that though she is a prostitute by night, she is also a hairdresser by day.

The chairperson of Itekeng Ward Development Committee, Benjamin Matlho acknowledged that the prostitution is a problem in his area.

Matlho said it is fuelled by many entertainment places in the ward.  He said most of the prostitutes come from other areas in Francistown and are not confined to Itekeng only.

“We need concerted efforts to fight this because of its multiple problems that are well-known,” said Matlho. The councillor for Itekeng, Lesego Kwambala is equally concerned about the scourge of prostitution in his area.

He said they are in the process of registering a society that will specifically deal with the problem of prostitution in the area.

“To successfully deal with this problem, you have to understand its cause before you attempt to solve it. Recently, we sat down with one of the prostitutes and she told us what made her become one. She told us that she has many children that she is taking care of in Zimbabwe.”

“Fortunately, she told us that she had saved a lot of money and we advised her to go back home and buy salon machinery in order to start a hairdressing business,” said Kwambala.

Kwambala added that the woman took their advice and has since left for Zimbabwe to start her business.

“I plead with my fellow residents not to rent their homes to these women because most of them do not have valid passports.  We cannot win the war against prostitution if some of us are giving them accommodation.  The repercussions of prostitution need not be emphasised,” Kwambala said, adding that there are few prostitutes in his area as compared to the past when the Zimbabwean economy was in doldrums.  Francistown police station commander, Superintendent Lebalang Maniki said they are aware that some illegal immigrants are involved in prostitution.

Maniki said the problem is widespread in the city, especially outside busy streets and entertainment places in the central business district. “We normally hit the culprits with a charge of idling and disorder for immoral purpose,” Maniki said.

Although prostitution is illegal in Botswana and in some countries in the world, the profession still exists.  This illegal status puts prostitutes and sex workers at risk, who are considered vulnerable groups.  To address this global problem, the United Nations (UN) in 1993 adopted a Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women.

The declaration defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life”. It outlines steps that the United Nations, its agencies and programmes, should take to address gender-based violence against women. 

It also makes clear that states should not invoke any custom, tradition, or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination.  Furthermore signatories to the declaration should exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and, in accordance with national legislation, punish acts of violence against women, whether those acts are perpetrated by the state or by private persons.

According to Wikipedia, the prostitution industry generates over $100 billion a year and employs about 42 million people although its legal status varies from country to country.

Editor's Comment
What about employees in private sector?

How can this be achieved when there already is little care about the working conditions of those within the private sector employ?For a long time, private sector employees have been neglected by their employers, not because they cannot do better to care for them, but because they take advantage of government's laxity when it comes to protecting and advocating for public sector employees, giving the cue to employers within the private sector...

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