Sex workers in the Gokwe district have recently voiced their concerns about an alarming trend involving married men who are pressuring them into engaging in unprotected sexual encounters. the sex workers are now calling for increased awareness and action to address the issue, which poses significant health risks for both themselves and their clients.
Sex workers who provide an essential service in the community, have long been advocating for safe sex practices to protect themselves and their clients from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unwanted pregnancies. However, a growing number of married men are reportedly disregarding these precautions, exposing themselves and their partners to potential health hazards.
Speaking confidentially, several sex workers revealed that they often encounter resistance from certain clients, particularly those who are married, when it comes to using condoms during their encounters. Despite the known risks, including the potential transmission of STIs, these clients persist in their refusal to utilize protective measures, putting both themselves and the sex workers at risk.
Sex workers who spoke during a community dialogue that was organised by Community Voices Zimbabwe in Gokwe expressed their distress over the increasing number of married men who insist on having unprotected sex. They shared stories of being coerced or manipulated into engaging in risky encounters, often under the threat of violence or financial repercussions.
One sex worker who wished to remain anonymous, recounted her experience, “Some of the men who take us are actually married men, and most of them are used to sex without protection in their marriages. They want the same with us, but the rate of STIs will be rising. Above all, they will not be paying us for our service. We feel for their wives back at home, who might get infected with STIs. As for us we have our own clinics, and we will be covered but their wives will be infected back home, and it might spread even more.
The sex workers argue that the consequences of these encounters extend beyond their immediate health risks. Some sex workers have been murdered by their would-be clients, this has left the majority in fear during their work.
“…we have one of our own who was murdered with machetes when he had gone with a client. So we fear that if we refuse some of these men might kill us. I know a friend of mine who was assaulted after asking for her money from a client. We are left with no choice, but to comply, fearing for our safety and livelihoods,” said Jestina (not her real name).
To address this issue, the sex workers are calling upon local health organizations, NGOs, and government entities to increase awareness campaigns about safe sex practices and the importance of condom use. They believe that education and support from these institutions can help shift societal norms and promote a culture where responsible sexual behavior is embraced. They also call upon law enforcement agencies to protect them during their work.
In response to these concerns, health organizations and activists recognize the importance of creating an environment where individuals feel empowered to make informed decisions about their sexual health and are working collaboratively to provide resources, education, and access to condoms.
“It is disheartening to see men who engage with sex workers without using protection, disregarding the health and safety of both themselves and the sex workers involved, and even more so the wives who are at home knowing nothing. This behavior not only shows a lack of respect and empathy but also contributes to the spread of sexually transmitted infections and diseases. As feminists and activists, we must work to challenge these harmful behaviors and attitudes. It is crucial to engage in open and honest conversations about sexual health, consent, and the importance of using protection consistently. Additionally, comprehensive sex education, accessible healthcare services, and policies that protect the rights and safety of sex workers are essential to addressing this challenge effectively,” said feminist Sabina Mavetere.
“As a feminist, I fully condemn men refusing to use protection when engaging with sex workers. It is essential to recognize and respect the agency and autonomy of sex workers, who deserve the same rights and protection as anyone else. By refusing to use protection, these men are not only endangering the health and well-being of the sex workers but also perpetuating the stigma and discrimination that surrounds the profession. It is crucial to educate individuals about the importance of practicing safe sex, promoting consent-based interactions, and advocating for the rights and safety of sex workers,” added Helen Malunga.
Women’s advocate and Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe Midlands Chairperson Nozipho Rutsate said there is a need to value the rights of sex workers while also implementing programs that bring the society together and educate them on Sexual Reproductive Health.
“…every woman has the right to her body and a right to how she would want her body to be treated in the sexually productive health area. So we do understand the plight of the sex workers, and we recommend that there is a need for sex education and awareness campaigns to address such issues that are being faced by sex workers.
“Unfortunately in the society that we are in, it is well understood that married men are not very conversent with using protections such as condoms and the like so definitely they would take advantage of that and would like to indulge in sexual activities with sex workers in the same manner that they do in their homes. But it is very important that there is some form of awareness, maybe the health workers can try to find a program that would do while incorporate or partner with sex workers like what the national aids Council did before and is continuing to do now.
“…also work with sex workers in trying to educate men and women at large on how to protect themselves during any sexual activities. So, definitely, as an organization we can see that the rights of these women are being infringed, but at the same time there is also a need to educate the other gender so that they understand that these women are in their line of work and should not be treated in any harmful way or bring any other act that will bring harm to their bodies. They should be respected in the line of work that they do.
“Yes indeed you know our society people perceive sex workers as people who are not important because they sell their bodies for their livelihoods But we want to also consider the fact that these people do have rights and people do not have the right to even treat them in a such a way where they are harming and abusing their bodies. So we are actually calling out that there is a need for people to be aware of this and also to try as much as possible to protect themselves when they are indulging in such activities,” she advised.
According to the Sustainable Development Goals, by 2030, we should ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services, including family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programs (SDG#3.7). Furthermore, there is also a need to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as agreed in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences (SDG#5.6).
It is for this reason that Wendall Mhonde a member of a Community-Based Organisation stated that there is also a need to push for policy reforms that address the work of sex workers while also engaging in community dialogues, especially with men, and challenging harmful practices and perceptions against sex workers.
“To address this challenge we need to promote comprehensive education programs that focus on sexual health, consent, and the rights of sex workers while raising awareness about the importance of using protection and the potential risks involved in engaging in unsafe practices. As CBOs we also need to come up with initiatives that uplift and empower sex workers, providing them with access to healthcare services, legal protection, and resources to negotiate safe practices with clients.
“Furthermore we can also advocate for policies that prioritize the rights, health, and safety of sex workers. This includes decriminalization or regulation of sex work, which can help create safer working conditions and allow for better access to healthcare and protection services. Engaging with communities, including men is also key, this can be done through challenging harmful attitudes and perceptions surrounding sex work while encouraging open and non-judgmental discussions to foster understanding, empathy, and responsibility towards all individuals involved,” he added.
The concerns raised by Gokwe sex workers shed light on a pressing issue that requires immediate attention. It is crucial for all stakeholders, including the government, civil society organisations, and the community, to work together to address this problem effectively. only through collaborative efforts can the rights and safety of sex workers be protected, ensuring a healthier and more secure environment for all.