Botswana has been called upon to consider legalising prostitution in an effort to help fight the spread of HIV as well as address a web of challenges faced by the minority group.
Speaking at the unveiling of a documentary and booklet on female sex workers in Gaborone, UNAIDS Country Director, Gang Sun noted the UNAIDS Gap report had shown female sex workers (FSWs) had been left behind in the HIV response because of stigma and discrimination, violence and punitive legal and social environments.
He pointed out that punitive environments had been shown to limit the availability, access and uptake of HIV prevention, treatment, care and support for sex workers and their clients.
Sun said sex workers were among the population’s most affected by HIV/AIDS for years, both in concentrated and generalised epidemic settings.
He added that FSWs was a group, which is particularly vulnerable to health challenges, including HIV.
Sun explained further that the FSWs group lived under the spectre of violence and abuse while struggling to make ends meet and find a better life for themselves and loved ones.
“Globally, female sex worker’s HIV prevalence is 12 times greater than among the general population and a study conducted in Botswana in 2012 shows a 62 percent HIV positive rate among FSWs from three sites, which is among the highest rate that has been documented in the region, while that Botswana for the general public 18 months older is 18.5 percent and the female population HIV prevalence rate is 20.8 percent,” he said.
Even though much has changed in the response to HIV over the last decades, especially in the areas of prevention, testing and treatment many countries missed respectful and inclusive response to marginalise and vulnerable population, which includes sex workers, said Sun.
He said only a handful of countries had risk reduction programmes for sex workers while the remaining two thirds of countries expected sex workers to obtain services through general health-care settings, where they may not be or feel welcomed.
He said sex workers needed community, social and structural empowerment where they could take responsibilities fortheir lives and those around them.
The Minister of Labour and Home Affairs, Edwin Batshu who attended said that it was time government acknowledged sex workers existed and addressed the challenge.
Batshu said the statistics showed FSWs were mostly affected and infected by HIV than any other people. He said they were likely to infect their customers and their partners, as they remained vulnerable to the virus.
“It is imperative that we clearly understand that we cannot distance ourselves and become spectators when we interpret these dire statistics as they have a direct effect on the health and welfare of the population,” he said.
“We cannot afford to stand in denial or appropriate to ourselves the position of arm chair critics. Sex work is a reliable indicator of poverty among those involved and can be reversed,” said Batshu.
He pointed out that the aim of the launch was to unearth factors which drove women into sex work, emotional and physical challenges they encountered as well as the associated health risks and impediments to accessing services and commodities for securing their physical and emotional wellbeing.
Batshu said the documentary and booklet would be an eye opener to many Batswana and the government, as they would get to hear what made sex workers choose the path they chose.
“I never imagined that someone would go through hardships that I have heard our sisters, daughters and probably our mothers have gone through. If it wasn’t for this launch I wouldn’t know many things that real people experience,” Batshu added.