“Do you know how we get Aids? I’ll tell you how we get Aids. When your kids say they are hungry and there is nothing at home, you go out into the streets and try to find money for groceries. That is how we get Aids.”
Prudence Mbewu, Johannesburg, 1999
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What stays with us after six months is how much they hate it. “They laugh at you and beat you.” “You feel low, like your ego has gone away.” “You sacrifice body and soul.” “I hate myself.” And, of course: “I have seen people die of Aids. It’s horrible.”
Over the years, as journalists in our respective countries, we had already noted how ordinary women -cleaners, market sellers, waitresses, assistant teachers, factory workers, students- were offering sex for money in many of the places where we worked. We had seen girls in the streets of Monrovia, sent there by their families with warnings not to come home empty handed. We had noted how young women in the DRC frantically scraped money together to buy lipstick and do their hair, because attracting someone was the only way to continue studying. (They did not need to diet to get into shape; they were skinny already.) In Nigeria we had seen how from all over the country women flock to pimps in Benin City, hoping for work abroad.
Of course it would be sex work abroad. They were not stupid. It was what they had done at home, too.
In short, we knew that poor women in our countries sold sex simply to live. But, again, what we didn’t know was how much they hated it. Or how many of them there were outside the known red light districts, in places where we had never expected it: in ordinary flats and villages, all over town and the rural areas. Most of them didn’t even look like sex workers, even if some would dress up like that in the evening. We knew them as housewives and cleaners and fruit sellers. They wore doeks on their heads. They were like us, only poorer. And sadder.
Practically all women who said yes when asked if they resorted to the ‘last resource’ -over two thirds, 153 out of 226 women of all ages from 12 to 60, randomly selected in townships, squatter camps and villages, in dilapidated rentals, on markets, at bus stations and other community hubs-, mentioned that they were scared of Aids, or of being beaten to death, or that they felt they had died already ‘inside.’ But they had to continue to do it, they said, simply to eat. Most often, it wasn’t even for themselves. It was for their children to eat or go to school. Or their sick parents, or widowed and disinherited mothers, or dependent younger brothers and sisters.
Some women blamed themselves for their troubles. “We did not finish school,” they would say, and “I made wrong choices.” We could often only guess what that meant. That they should have married better, instead of ending up with an unemployed, absent, alcoholic or abusive partner? That they should have stayed in a school without a roof, or where teachers demanded sex for marks? Rose Marie in the DRC sleeps with an old man who pays her university fees, but he is a client, not a partner, and he demands her at all hours of the day and night so that she misses classes and to make up for it she has to sleep with lecturers, too.
But most women -a vast majority- knew who really should shoulder some blame. Firstly, it was ‘generations of men,’ as one respondent put it. Absent fathers of children abound all over the surveys. At best they contribute sometimes; at worst they use their children’s grants to go out and find new girls for sex. The reason: the system hurt the men, and the men hurt the women. It was the stuff of many a sociological research paper, but they knew it from experience.
Next, it was the traditions. These had once been useful, in ancient communities where male breadwinners and patriarchs, however oppressive, actually were held accountable for feeding and protecting women. But these communities had now disintegrated under urbanisation, modern capitalism and exploitation of the soil, and the remaining traditions had become oppressive-only. You can’t own land, you can’t inherit, if your husband dies you get kicked out. Like they kicked out Kadi, who then had to work the streets in Bomi County, Liberia. Or you must service the landlord who just raised your rent again in Eastleigh, Nairobi, even if he purports to be devoutly religious just like you.
But mostly, it was the governments in the countries where they lived that had betrayed them. Budgets meant for school or health care for their children, or grants for elderly and widows, kept mysteriously disappearing. You would never see ‘Comrades’ of the ruling party in your area, except when they would come for their pound of flesh. Sometimes they had appropriated the house that had been built as social housing, officially meant for the likes of you, but proclaimed that they were now landlords and you had to pay ‘rent’ to them. They ran pro-poor programmes that delivered high-paying jobs for those in charge of it, but not much else. Meanwhile, in the countries where ‘prostitution’ is illegal, the same policemen and soldiers who demand sex from you are the ones who arrest you and beat you up.
We had labelled this project the ‘sex work’ project. But as the surveys came in we started to doubt if the term was correct. Maybe technically it was sex work, because the women sold sex, but the word ‘sex’ started jarring. It started to feel wrong, the way it feels wrong to say ‘sex’ when the issue is rape. No matter in which context you put it, the word ‘sex’ conjures up images of intimacy and excitement. Both of these were notably absent in our interviews. This was not about sex. It was also not about being a sex worker who chooses to service clients for sex. This was using your body as a last resort, or last resource as we finally called it, comparable to other natural resources like the minerals or oil in the ground.
The bodies of the women we interviewed are exploited just like other natural resources in their countries. But while other natural resources are mined and appropriated by others -those who have power, and who often damage their countries in the process-, their bodies are the only resources the women have access to. They mine their own bodies so to speak, and damage no one but themselves. You feed yourself, your kids, and others who depend on you, off your body. That is not sex. It is also not prostitution, with its connotation of the ‘unworthy or corrupt use of one’s talents for personal or financial gain’ as the dictionary will have it. The women may agree that it is ‘unworthy’ and maybe even ‘corrupt’ to be doing this, but the definition implies that you have a choice.
What we also found was the cruel irony, maybe even the sadism, of women empowerment programmes: whether they come from the own government or from foreign donors and NGOs. To be fair, we should perhaps include our own project here, too, among all the monitoring, surveying, workshopping and conferencing about the girl child and the quota and the expert training that is done to ‘empower’ the women of Africa. The thing is that they note nothing of it. The Ugandan parliament may count 34 % women now -a vast increase in women at the top in African politics- but the women in Kamwokya, Kampala, have not come across these women as allies. The government is as corrupt as ever, they say, whilst they go for days without food and can’t access welfare or health programmes. The Liberian presidency of acclaimed ‘female empowerment’ leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf conducted a programme for skills training for 2000 of the estimated over half a million teenage girls living in abject poverty, with the need to make money and amid threats of violence and rape, but that was it. It was stopped when after elections another government took over. (There is another pro-poor programme now that no one in Liberia has actually seen; see the relevant chapter.)
Most laughable are the awareness programmes, conducted in almost every country to ‘make’ women ‘aware’ of their rights, of the pressing need to use family planning, condoms, to test for Aids. If there is one thing, besides the chilling numbers and the overwhelming despair in our interviews, that is profoundly clear it is that they are aware. They are aware that they risk Aids and death every single day. There is simply nothing they can do about it.
Out of the 226 interviewed, there were 13 who said that they would never ever resort to exploiting their own bodies. They begged, they said, and they ate very little. They said “I rather sleep with water in my stomach.” Or “if I die, who will look after my kids?” One said: “it is the work of Satan and I will never do it.” Later in the conversation she said that she had ‘gone with men’ for money in the past, though. She had now married and the man brought home just enough.
Which brings us to the last point: can we trust what the women said? Some may have lied. However, judging by the secrecy, the reputation, the shame, the dying of the soul they also mentioned, we can safely say that it is unlikely that any interviewee would have said they do ‘sex work’ when they didn’t. There was no reward for whatever answer, but there was fear that neighbours would come to know. The odds are that if they lied, it would have been the other way around.
That said, it must be made clear that this was not a scientific survey. We are journalists, not academic researchers or a polling agency. We worked to reconcile the assignment frame, the random approach, the questions lists and the answers we received (see below). The results, as far as we are concerned, call for real research by capable agencies, preferably resulting in a set of practical recommendations for governments to follow and to be held accountable for. If we may: a stop to siphoning off health, education and welfare budgets would be a start, as would be a serious look at how to implement pro-poor programmes structurally, in good governance management and not just on shiny pamphlets and in speeches.
The mining of women’s bodies seems to increase where traditional communities disintegrate and wealth gaps widen. If nothing is done to help, the spiral will grow. Mothers told us they were now old, but they feared their daughters were doing it now since somehow there was food in the home again after the girls had turned fourteen or fifteen. Some daughters told us their mothers had actively recruited them: by pointing out how neighbours were better off ‘thanks to their unselfish daughters;’ telling them, as they told themselves, that they would find it ‘gets easier with time.’
But it wasn’t the majority who said that. The majority hate it. One cried when given money so that she did not have to go that night, after cleaning office toilets all day.
As said above, this was no scientific survey or poll. We don’t have the skill or the capacity to target areas so that people’s income levels and social conditions are exactly at par in every country we investigated. Our random targeting is based on us going out and seeing who will talk to us in areas where we know people live in extreme poverty, i.e. under the World Bank limit of US$ 1,90 a day. (It is easy in African countries to find such areas. It is where the majority of people live.)
Also, being journalists, we cannot work wonders, or force our way through. Patience Akumu was forced out of Gulu, where soldiers and police take a dim view of anyone researching anything, let alone anyone researching sex work, which is illegal in Uganda. Muno Gedi had access to the Somali refugee community in Eastleigh, Nairobi, but could not get elders and Nairobi city officials to answer questions. Actually, most of us could not; comments from authorities were sometimes promised, but mostly not forthcoming. A security manager at a mining compound in Zimbabwe simply did not answer the phone anymore after finding out what the questions were. Similarly in Moutse, South Africa. Our authorities bank on us going away after a little noise.
There may be overlaps in the data. It was difficult to categorise the human beings we interviewed. Some had had to go with strangers in the streets in the past, but now had some assistance from a husband, boyfriend or son -notably in two cases, from a criminal son and son-in-law. Others talked of three boyfriends ‘who helped with money’, but the boyfriends were more like clients than that there was real intimacy or partnership with any of the three. The problem was a problem that has existed through the ages: a lot of women look for rich husbands or boyfriends, and will, when they find them, sincerely say they love them, too. To deal with this problem we had to make judgement calls on the basis of the interviewee’s expressed emotions: did she feel supported by a nice boyfriend or husband, or did she feel she was providing an unpleasant service to a ‘sugar daddy’, a fixed set of clients, or any stranger at all? We ended up with categories for ‘support by (ex-)partners/relatives,’ ‘done it in the past’ (but now no longer needed); servicing boss/landlord/sugar daddy’ or going with strangers in the streets
In that way there were still overlaps -many who had done sex work in the past had stopped because they were now -always rudimentarily- supported by a new partner, but you could at least extrapolate a bit. When they had done it in the past but now had found support we made a separate category simply because they had -for mostly sizeable periods- been forced to face the risks attached to sex work and also: current support might not be eternal and they might have to go back.
There was another category where women needed to ply teachers or other professional connections for immaterial help (as opposed to food or money), for instance when they slept with teachers for marks. There was also a category that desperately searched for husbands, having sexual relations with prospects in the process, not because of love or custom, but simply hoping to ward off hunger for herself and kids. But we found we would really overstep our mark of we would count a search for marriage, or with efforts to get a diploma, with sex work. So we listed these in the category ‘other,’ together with the interviewees who said they kept trying to get by selling oranges or household items at the market.
We tried to categorise results also between interviews held in rural areas and the city, but that turned out to be difficult, too. For instance the Eastleigh, Nairobi community of Somali refugees doesn’t fit either label, nor do the villages around the diamond fields in Marange, Zimbabwe. Nigerian women were looking for oyinbo -white men- both in oil fields and in Abuja. There were some indications of an impact of traditional values, and perhaps a traditional community framework, in close knit communities like in Tororo village in Uganda, where seven out of 15 women said they would never have sex outside marriage and ‘rather die.’ But in other villages these traditional values did not seem to play as much of a role. In the end we just opted to present results per country, and explain the different social context in the narrative reports.
As a result of miscommunication between what were in total eight team members operating in eight countries, and often in different languages too, we encountered some problems with regard to the survey numbers per country. For example, in the DRC, 38 women were interviewed because a three-member-team on the ground had not received the message that we were going for ten women in three different locations, totaling 30. The message had been the result of a later readjustment: initially the idea had been to go for 45 interviews per country, but that had, because of limitations to time and resources generally, turned out to be too much. The same over-interviewing, for the same reason, occurred in Zimbabwe, where 40 women instead of 30 were interviewed. In Nigeria in contrast we were only able to interview 28 and not 30 before the deadline.
These mistakes underline the need for surveys done by real polling and surveying agencies. We feel, however, that our journalistic research, however preliminary still stands. There is a vast difference between the DRC and Zimbabwe -among other things in language, history and social landscape- after all; it is unlikely that their data would ‘band together’ to have a distorting effect on the general findings. We hope that this first effort to, however roughly, map the situation in the countries where we worked, will be followed up by institutions with the capability and resources we lacked. The data visualization (next to this text?), shows our observations per country as well as when summed up over all countries and we hope it to be somewhat useful.
Sadly, we had to exclude the Mali survey results from the visualization. The reason is that the initial assignment had been misunderstood on the ground in that country to mean the interviewing of women already known to have resorted to sex work after the main factory in the relevant town had closed down. Since in all other countries we had randomly interviewed women in poor areas, consciously avoiding working in red light districts and approaching sex workers-only, we could not combine the Mali data with the rest. The narrative report from Mali is however all the more enlightening and it is included.