Botswana mulls decriminalization of prostitution

05 Aug 2018

Former President Festus Mogae, ever the liberal democrat thought he could put an end to the cat and mouse chase between the police and sex workers by legalizing prostitution. During the 2010 AIDS National council, Mogae who was the champion of Botswana’s fight against HIV?AIDS and head of the National Aids Council argued that legalizing prostitution would make it easier to help sex workers prevent the disease. He argued that decriminalizing sex work does not mean encouraging it, but would pave way for policies that protect those who have been forced into the trade. He said that these women are often vulnerable and by legalizing their trade, they will be able to report men who forcibly put them at risk of contracting the virus, and in turn men who seek their services will no longer abuse them as might be the situation now. Legalising the sex trade would also free up police to focus on other crimes, rather than chasing adults having consensual sex, he said.

In 2014 Assistant Minister of Local Government Botlogile Tshireletso added her voice to the faint din calling for prostitution to be legalized. He made a plea to Parliament to legalize prostitution, arguing that legalizing prostitution should be looked into because it is there and can’t be ignored therefore government should take initiative and help these workers.

Non government organizations such as Sisonke also aim to help sex workers in their plight. Both BONELA and the sex worker-led organization Sisonke implement the Hands Off! Programme. They provide health and human rights information and education to sex workers, done by peer educators and paralegals during outreach programmes in four sites; lawyers help sex workers get their cases issued and represent sex workers in court. These two Hands Off! Partners, Sisonke and BONELA aim to reduce violence against sex workers through (sustainable) prevention, care and support. If sex workers are empowered and supported at individual and community level, (potential) allies are strengthened to respond to violence against sex workers and regional capacity and knowledge to promote sex workers’ rights is built then an enabling and supportive environment is created for sex workers' rights. Outcomes of Sisonke include a strong sex worker movement in Botswana, allies in support of the legislation reform on sex work issues and increased access to necessary services for sex workers.

Sex workers face high levels of violence, stigma, discrimination and other human rights violations. Due to their position in society, sex workers are vulnerable to physical, sexual and emotional violence from clients, police, the community and their intimate partners. This ranges from beatings, robbery and rape to being arrested for carrying condoms and being arbitrarily detained or bribed. Violence often causes inconsistent condom use and stops sex workers from accessing necessary (legal) support and health care, making them considerably more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.

In Botswana cases of violence experienced by the majority of sex workers are often of extremely serious and alarming.

One in four people in Botswana live with HIV.  Among (female) sex workers HIV prevalence is even higher at 61.9%. Violence is a key factor in the vulnerability of sex workers to HIV/AIDS. It leads to inconsistent condom use and prevents sex workers from accessing valuable legal support and health care. Hands Off! works with sex worker-led groups, law enforcement, health and support services, legal centres and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on human rights.

Tosh Beka the executive director at Sisonke Botswana says Sisonke Botswana in partnership with BONELA is a human rights organization that is all over Botswana.  They ensure that sex workers have access to health care services as well as justice. “Sisonke has male, female and transgendered sex workers, we go out there and find sex workers and offer them help and support. There is a misconception that sex workers are females who stand beside the road which isn’t true. There are a lot of sex workers who operate differently, some are married, some sell sex online, some go to hotels. Our peer outreach workers are sex workers who go out there and find other sex workers in a bid to offer help and support because they are in the same line of business and know each other well.  It is important to note that just like any other work, sex work is a job but it is somewhat shunned in our society. People are quick to judge others based on the fact that they sell sex for a living, we as Sisonke are not telling these people to stop what they we know that it is a choice they made to get into that line of business, our main job is to empower them and offer support.” 

Sisonke also economically empowers these women through a programme called Stepping Up Stepping Out. The programme offers courses such as cake baking and sewing amongst others. It doesn’t force them out of their line of business but shows them that there are alternative choices in life.” We have a young lady who joined the programme and is currently a business owner in Jwaneng, we don’t tell these women to leave their line of work but we try and show them that there is a lot more they can do besides selling sex, in the end the choice is theirs.”

Sisonke also deals with women who are sex workers but also abuse drugs. “We offer psycho-social support in the form of counseling, we also have a social worker who we deploy to go out where these women are and counsel them because most times they are heavily dependent on drugs and can’t do anything so we take the service to them.”

The organization offers a programme called Linkages where they identify sex workers who are HIV positive and link them to the relevant care and treatment. “We mostly reach out to initiate the new members who are HIV positive and link them to treatment so they can suppress their viral load, there are still some clients who sleep with these women without protection so this programme helps them know their status and get the relevant care and treatment.” They offer what they call “drop and send” every Tuesday where they let sex workers come in for HIV testing as well as STI screening. They have recently introduced a programme called Index whereby when a sex worker tests positive to HIV, they are free to bring in their clients if they agree so they can also get tested and get treatment if necessary. Mrs. Beka says there is a legal barrier due to the criminalization of sex work. “ Because of this it makes it hard for sex workers to get services, it also makes them vulnerable to violence sometimes violence that is done by the same people who could be protecting them, it instills fear in them and they shy away from reporting abuse cases therefore access to justice is impossible because of fear of stigmatization.’ (READ INDEPTH FOR DETAILS)