Underneath the many layers of the heavy set make up, fake eye lashes and the perfectly manicured nails lies a despondent, tear jerker.
*Fiona*, a twenty three year old young girl from Gabane found herself thrown in the deep end, when her mother and father died from HIV/Aids complications when she was only 16. Her youngest sister was only three. While many girls her age were behind their classroom desks,*Fiona* was literally “bending over backwards” to secure a roof over three siblings’ heads, food on their table and clothes on their backs. At first she was reluctant to speak out as she is wary of undercover law enforcer who often detains them for walking the streets late at night. After assurance that there is no need to be scared or ashamed, with her eyes fixed to the cracked pavement she states that, “I want to be able to put my sibling through school to ensure that they do not end up walking the streets like I am doing.”
Sex workers in Botswana are found across the country and can be found in places ranging from Gaborone to Kasane. They are mostly congested in and around the busiest night clubs, bars and casinos where they are almost sure to find potential clients. Some of them dwell in areas surrounding boarder gates where the target market is predominantly long distance truck drivers
For many Batswana sex work is often ostracized and misunderstood. It is discussed in air- conditioned boardrooms or among housewives with snide and hostile attitude both from a very socio economic perspective. No one ever takes a chance to wear 9 inch see through stripper stilettos to spend a day in the life of a sex workers. Every form of trade is essentially dictated by the fundamental market forces of demand and supply; after all it is the economists who say “there is no free lunch.” Despite this, society continues to raise a judgemental eyebrow towards sex workers completely disregarding the buyers who are also equals in this trade. The absence of buyers would result in a reduced market and ultimately reduced supply.
Section 155 of the Penal code of Botswana States that, “Every person who- knowingly lives wholly or in part on the earnings of prostitution; or in any public place persistently solicits or importunes for immoral purposes, is guilty of an offence; and, in the case of a second or subsequent conviction under this Section the court may, in addition to any term of imprisonment awarded, sentence the offender to corporal punishment.” According to founder of Sisonke Botswana, a sex workers movement led by sex worker Tosh Legoreng, “Legislation in Botswana, much like in South Africa and Namibia, does not criminalize the selling or buying of sexual services per se.
Similarly, sex work is in effect criminalized by provisions that prohibit wide range of activities associated with the act of prostitution.” She further stated that, “The penal code cap 08, 01 sections 176, 179, and 182 have been applied in courts against women for offences including common nuisance, idling and disorderly persons. These include sex workers who are by statutes often referred to as prostitutes.”
Depending on the age and proximity of sex workers in Botswana, motives for going into “Business” differ. Some are trying to earn a living while others are in it for purely frivolous reasons. Twenty two year old tertiary student in Gaborone claimed that she and a clique of friends trade sex for a money not with just anyone but strictly with “Smart good looking gentlemen”. She further stated that they are in it for the adventure and they use the income to boost their monthly allowances to be able to afford extra perks like designer label clothing and rendezvous about town. However, for the 29 year old Zimbabwean native standing across from her it’s a matter of life and death, she trades sex for money as a means of survival.
Cultural and social differences among Batswana continue to be a bone of contention when it comes to whether or not the decriminalisation and the legalization of sex work is a route worth considering. Opinions run parallel and while some feel legalisation of sex work may be considered in well advanced first world countries and that Batswana at large are not socially ready for this “drastic” move. A youthful aspiring policy analyst, Phenyo Segokgo however stated that, “In today’s liberal societies with the advent of skyrocketing HIV/AIDS and rape I think we should consider legalizing it. We can even go to the extent of making it professional with routine medical checkups for those prostitutes and registering them to have a follow up data base. This will not only benefit them but the country at large. Unconfirmed reports suggest that tourists prefer countries where there are many prostitutes so it can be also be used to lure potential tourists to the country hence uplifting the countries dwindling economy.” Segokgo sees a venture in which government will not only be protecting the people involved in this trade but also as means of economic diversification.
Despite the arguments raised and the motives behind this trade, sex work is real in Botswana and needs to be dealt with accordingly. Media and International relations scholar, Mmoloki Gabatlhaolwe pointed that, “ this profession is gender neutral and this world now has its fair share of male prostitutes as well. A right thinking member of our progressive society should know that if it were legalized, prostitutes of both genders could have access to health care. If it were legalized, it would be significantly harder for ‘pimps’ and ‘madams’ to abuse them, or for clients or law enforcement officers too, simply because they would have a legal recourse and wouldn’t have to hide the fact the transaction took place. I don’t see how the government has a right to legislate sexuality and morality in the first place. I have a big problem with that. In many other cultures, prostitution was considered a SACRED, and contrary to those who think they are the best at upholding the moral compass, I don’t think having a healthier approach towards would lead to moral degeneration.”
The streets are ugly and these scantily clad, beautified sex workers are exposed to all sorts of harm and potential danger from the very people who are baying for their blood, their clientele. Talking to the ladies who on the third day were more forthcoming in the conversation pointed out that they are occasionally insulted, physically abused, forced to have unprotected sex and are sometimes sent off without payments for services rendered. The unanimous opinion among them is that they do not understand why they should continue to be persecuted for engaging in consensual sex and that as long as they are deemed to be villains they will be punished for acts that have not harmed anyone.
In a mini survey constituted of respondents residing in urban and semi urban areas and in different fields of work, very few were opposed to the decriminalisation of sex workers citing moral degeneration, disregard for the sanctity of marriage and the increased spread of HIV Aids. However a vast majority were for its legalisation stating that as long as it illegal it will be near impossible to regulate it let alone regulate it. In their answers they also stated that its criminalisation will continue to drive it under and that our nation is in denial. There were also nonchalant views that as a nation we just need to learn to “live and let live.”
With social ills contributing to the spread of HIV Aids like drug and alcohol abuse, sex work is also perceived as a contributor to the spread. According to National Aids Coordinating Agency (NACA) acting national coordinator, Tshepo Mophuting, they will be addressing Parliament discussing the review of the National HIV AIDS policy on a two day workshop from 31st October 2011.
The generation gap in Botswana plays a big role in the debate on the decriminalisation of sex work. Legorwane who is advocating for decriminalisation also stated that, “Botswana is a Christian and cultural country, therefore they will criticize and say sex work is a sin. For example Father Williams says “God created men and women to engage in sex in the context of marriage to pro-create and it therefore becomes disturbing when there are calls that encourage people to engage in the money ”The is also violation of rights, because of this culture. . Sex workers are no different in work in which a woman sells her hands, such as a hair dresser or bank teller. Therefore sex work is no different from other forms of employment. Sex workers have the right to self determination. Sex work should be should be viewed and respected as legitimate work. It is a violation of women civil rights to be denied the right to work as sex workers.”