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‘Sex work is work’



MASERU – SEX workers in Lesotho say life on the streets is rough in a country where trade is rife with treachery, violence and stigma.

Some say decriminalising sex work could reduce the suffering and help sex workers with easier access to services.

Sello, a 38-year-old Maseru pansexual man, says he prefers sex with other men than with women.

But, for money, he often finds himself sleeping with women as part of his job as a sex worker for the past 14 years.

“It is demanding to have sex with a woman and I have to satisfy her because she is paying,” said Sello, who requested that his full name be hidden to protect his identity.

“Although I am pansexual, mostly I am homosexual so I have to take drugs such as Viagra for me to get my system going to satisfy a client.

I don’t know what these drugs will do to my body, I am scared,” he said.

He said men he sells sex to often refuse to wear condoms.

“I take PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) but it only protects me against HIV. It’s risky and I am still rolling with the punches as I haven’t conquered any of the challenges.”

Sello uses social media to market his services. He says sex work has its own rules.

“Re hoeba ka thobalano, e seng ’mele (We sell sex, not our bodies). There is no foreplay before intercourse so the buyer must come prepared or aroused and ready to do what they paid for.”

Sello said decriminalisation of sex work is vital for the industry.

“It will be easier for us to have security, brothels and commodities (lubricants). It will help reduce HIV infection,” he said.

Sello said criminalising sex work promotes violence, rape and stigma towards sex workers and also police brutality.

“Currently, police officers don’t deal with Gender Based Violence cases fairly because sex work isn’t decriminalised and some clients take advantage of that. We are violated,” he said.

He said he regards sex work as a business opportunity.

“I realised that there are men in need of sex with other men but they are still in the closet.

“I realised that I can help them but as time went on, I realised there were women too who were in need of sex and they were willing to pay so I grabbed the opportunity.”

A female sex worker, Lisebo, described her work as “hell on earth”.

She described scenes of one evening. She said she showed up at work as usual at around 7:30 pm. She said a client approached her seeking services two hours later and asked to go to his place.

“I went there because I needed money. Little did I know that he would refuse to use protection and when I disagreed, things turned rough.

“He beat me up and nearly stabbed me with a knife. I ran out of his house naked. Luckily it was at night,” said the 34-year-old who has been a sex worker since 2019.

She said men often take advantage of her.

“Some will come with little money that isn’t worth my services. They beat me up if I refuse. Some tear condoms or remove condoms without my consent,” she said.

She said she was treated for a Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) at a clinic recently.

“It was difficult as the people at the clinic I went to were hostile. The attitude of a health care professional changed suddenly when I informed her about the nature of my illness.

“She said to me ‘siki ena ea hau ea nkha, ha u tsebe u n’u nts’u luletse’ng’ (You have a stinking illness and I don’t know why you delayed coming),” she said.

“I no longer feel free to open up to our healthcare providers. My job is risky and people will be asking why I can’t quit. But what will happen to my dependents?”

Lisebo also called for decriminalisation of sex work “because we are not safe”.

“Recently, two of my colleagues were brutally killed and we saw their pictures making rounds on social media,” she said.

“Criminalising sex doesn’t mean there will be no sex workers,” she said.

“We exist and all we need is an organised brothel so that some clients will stop violating us.

“If sex work gets decriminalised, it will be very helpful because we would be able to report abuse to the police.

“Currently, they dismiss us on the basis that what we are doing is unlawful.”

She added that decriminalising the trade could also help deal with the scourge of child prostitution.

“Maybe children as young as 12-years-old will stop coming here. We have tried to stop them but we have failed,” she said.

Lisebo said when they approached the police about children selling sex they were told that they were jealous because they were being outcompeted.

Lisebo was introduced to sex work by some sex workers whom she said were her neighbours but are now late.

“Other than poverty, I envied their lives because they wore beautiful clothes and ate delicious food,” she said.

They told her that they worked the night shift as factory workers and invited her to join them one night, lending her their beautiful clothes to wear.

To her surprise, when they got to a spot they gave her condoms and showed her a place to stand so that she could attract customers.

That was when she realised that she had been invited to sell sex.

“I have not stopped since then.”

Sex work is largely deemed illegal and immoral in Lesotho and other parts of Africa.

Although prostitution is a punishable offence under Lesotho’s Penal Code, sex workers and other queer groups have succeeded in legally registering an association advocating for their rights.

The association, Key Affected Populations Alliance of Lesotho (KAPAL), consists of current, past sex workers and allies.

Advocate Joanna Jonas, an ally, who is also a human rights lawyer, lamented that sex work is illegal under Lesotho’s 2010 Penal Code.

The Penal Code Act of 2010, Section 55, defines a prostitute as a person who engages in sexual activity for payment.

It criminalises inciting, instigating or engaging or procuring another to engage, either in Lesotho or elsewhere, in prostitution.

A person who persistently pesters others in a public place with the intention of engaging in sexual intercourse or with the intention of facilitating sexual intercourse with another person commits an offence, according to the Code.

The Code also states that a person who lives or habitually associates with a prostitute or is proven to have exercised control, direction or influence over the movement of the prostitute in such a manner as to show aiding or compelling prostitution for commercial gain, is deemed to have committed an offence.

The Code also says a person who detains another person against his or her will in premises which are used for prostitution or in any other place with the intent that such a person should engage in sexual intercourse with another person, commits an offence.

Advocate Jonas said KAPAL wants to challenge section 55 of the Code.

“We do not recruit people to be sex workers. Sex work is already there but we want it to be decriminalised,” she said.

“Decriminalisation should seek to recognise sex work as work governed by labour laws and other related laws,” she said, adding that legalisation of sex work is recognising sex work as work that is protected by labour laws and any other related laws.

Advocate Jonas argues that criminalisation of sex work is a contributing factor to new HIV infection, violation of the human right to economic development, violence promotion, stigma and discrimination towards sex workers.

“It violates the human right to have sex with anyone, the right to bodily autonomy, limits the human right to equal access to sexual reproductive health services and the contributing factor to police brutality and rape,” she said.

KAPAL is on an ongoing six-months project funded by Urgent Action Fund Africa (UAFA) to capacitate key stakeholders about sex work issues, and lobbying MPs to decriminalise sex work.

The association said it is planning to approach the Constitutional Court to declare as unconstitutional the criminalisation of sex work.

KAPAL Executive Director, Lepheana Mosooane, said a sex worker must be someone who is 18-years-old and above and must not be forced by drugs, alcohol, human trafficking, sex slavery or any form of threat.

People under 18 cannot be defined as sex workers and are understood in law as victims of sexual exploitation, he said.

He said the difference between sex work and prostitution is that sex work is a voluntary buying and selling of sex by two consenting adults and it is governed by rules and regulations.

Prostitution, he said, refers to exchange of sex for goods, services or gifts by anyone with no governing regulations.

“Some of the crimes under prostitution include sex with underage kids, drugs, human trafficking, sex slavery and many more,” said Mosooane.

He said sex work is a career of choice, income generating activity, second income, lack of equal access to employment and lack of equal access to business opportunities to mention a few.

“It can be bought on the streets and public places, bars, home, stockvel, online or brothel,” said Mosooane.

The Lesotho Population-based HIV Impact Assessment (LePHIA) 2020 statistics says there is high prevalence of HIV among women aged 15-44 at 29.4 percent, 71.9 percent among female sex workers and 32.9 percent among male sex workers.

’Mapule Motsopa

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