Risky business: report sheds new light on sex trade

Not much has been known about sex workers in Swaziland, but a recent report has begun to shed some light on the sex industry in a country with the highest rate of HIV infection in the world.

The study, conducted for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) by the National Emergency Response Council on HIV and AIDS (NERCHA), was prompted by the grisly discovery in late September of about 100 foetuses in a stream used by a peri-urban community at the Matsapha Industrial Estate, outside the central commercial town of Manzini.

Commercial sex workers were initially blamed, but police sources also suspected that underpaid women working at the Matsapha factories and selling casual sex after hours might have used a local abortionist, who then disposed of the foetuses.

After the controversy died down, health workers wanted to assess the nature of the sex trade to formulate a strategy for reaching this high-risk group, but finding sex workers was difficult because the practice is illegal and perpetrators face prison terms.

The first phase of the research was a "snap survey", which interviewed 53 women aged 15 to 39 and eight men. A follow-up report covering other areas where the sex trade is conducted, such as the Ezulwini suburb of the capital, Mbabane, where the main tourist hotels are located, is due in early 2008.

Although the study shows that there are more women in the profession than men, "it must be noted that a growing number of males are joining the trend," said Margaret Thwala-Tembe, National Programmes Officer for UNFPA in Swaziland. The men engaged in sex with wealthy female small-business owners or company executives. "The report is just the beginning of much still to be covered by phase two of the study."

Selling sex for extra income

An increasing number of factory workers were also resorting to sex work, or "night duty", to make ends meet because they were underpaid, said researcher Alfred Mndzebele, but delegates attending this week's conference of the Swaziland Partnership Forum on HIV and AIDS stressed that these women should not be labelled sex workers.

"These are industrial workers; these are working women, they are not prostitutes. If they are forced into prostitution it is because they are not paid enough to support their families. The price they pay is HIV infection, and the price the whole nation pays is an expansion of the AIDS epidemic," warned Mathew Myeni, an HIV counsellor in Manzini.

The rising number of women resorting to sex work has been attributed to worsening economic and humanitarian conditions in the country.

Instances of violence against women engaged in commercial sex were also documented. "Some were taken to bushes and threatened with death by customers who refused to pay, whilst others were injured on duty," said Thwala-Tembe.


Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
The rising number of women resorting to sex work has become disturbing

The survey distinguished between working women who engaged in sex for cash - usually in parked cars or at the homes of clients whose spouses were absent - and women who had multiple sex partners as part of economic arrangements. Such women would be homeless if they could not spend the night with one partner, and hungry if they were not given meals by a second sex partner.

Both groups of women said they did not use condoms at the insistence of their clients; nor did the men. The report cited one candid woman who had informed a potential partner that she was HIV-positive, but the unperturbed man hired her for sex anyway, saying he was also HIV positive. Swaziland's first household health survey, conducted this year, found that one out of four sexually active adults was HIV positive.

The sex survey confirmed that working women, who had been impregnated when they engaged in commercial sex, had aborted the foetuses, despite abortion being illegal.

Since the late 1990s, Swaziland has attracted Asian garment manufacturers that set up shop to take advantage of favourable trade treaties with the West, including the African Growth and Development Act (AGOA) with the US. However, low pay and complaints about working conditions have led to labour tension.

The garment factories are opposed to a new labour law that expands maternity leave for women, and sick leave for people living with HIV and AIDS. The textile industry employs mainly women as seamstresses and other semi-skilled labour. These are the type of workers at Matsapha found to be engaged in commercial sex and vulnerable to HIV infection.

Their highest-paying clients were members of parliament, religious officials, lecturers at the University of Swaziland campus adjacent to the Matsapha industrial estate, police officers, businesspeople and well-heeled tourists.

A session with a sex worker costs a typical client R50 (US$7), but can escalate to R1,000 ($146) for some pastors. Member of parliament and other wealthy clients reportedly paid nearly R3,000 (US$439) per session.

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