World AIDS Day 2014: What contract are you on?

01 December 2014
An HIV ribbon

Our World AIDS Day 2014 blog brings together voices from the field to share perspectives on the HIV epidemic on this day of remembrance and solidarity. This blog series includes messages from AVERT’s CEO, our partner, the Umunthu Foundation, and a case study from our South African partner, Sisonke. The blog also features guest pieces from the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, and the Key Correspondents programme.

Georgina Caswell, Regional Programme Advisor: Link Up (Africa), International HIV/AIDS Alliance

Three years ago I became friends with a sex worker. I immediately wanted to know more, so I asked her what she meant about ‘being a sex worker’. Her reply to me was: “Have you not heard the saying? We are ALL sex workers. Some of us are pre-paid, some are pay-as-you-go and others are on contract.” Hmmmm, I hadn’t expected that. It made me both smile and think, and her response stayed with me for a long time. It challenged me to think about the ‘contract’ I had with my then-boyfriend (now husband). How long? At what cost? What are the benefits? What are the terms and conditions?

The Link Up project that I am part of, works with young people from key populations aged 10-24, including young people who sell sex. Through the project, I’ve met young people who have different experiences of sex work and started selling sex for different reasons. Some experiences have been positive, others less so. Some young people come in and out of sex work. In Ethiopia, for example, through our partners OSSA and the Nikat Charitable Association, the young people I have met who sell sex display an incredible sense of agency.

Like me at that age, they are independent and driven. As a teenager, I knew what I wanted and I worked hard for it. I knew how to draw on the support around me. I see this same drive in these young people. Some already had children at the age of 15. Some shared that they chose sex work to get money to take care of their families. Others said they wanted to open a business, become a teacher or nurse. For now, they are doing sex work to save up for future opportunities. Some have said that they would prefer not to do sex work and that their choices in life are limited by poverty and a lack of education.

The agency I’ve seen was not only visible in how they manage their own lives, but also in how they support one another to prioritise their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). The Ethiopian Link Up project, for example, supports peer education training and outreach with young people who sell sex. Those taking part receive training on a range of SRHR and HIV issues, including relationships, gender and sexuality, negotiation skills for safer sex, and how to respond to stigma and violence. These newly trained peers then hold peer education sessions in small groups of 10-15 that are led by young people who sell sex in hotels, bars or wherever they work or are comfortable holding sessions. During the sessions, participants may choose to access psychosocial or clinical services by trained service providers to address any SRHR and HIV support needs they may have.

When working with people under 18 who sell sex, it’s tricky to get a balance between autonomy and protection. On the one hand, it’s important to respect choices of young people and their evolving capacity to make decisions about their own health and lives. On the other, there is an instinct to protect, especially since adolescence is a time of rapid change – physically, psychologically, sexually and emotionally. According to the Interagency Working Group’s Technical Brief on Young People Who Sell Sex, young people who sell sex take greater risks - such as inconsistent condom use and use of drugs or alcohol - compared to young people in the wider population and older sex workers.

The criminalisation of sex work in most countries in Eastern and Southern Africa facilitates the risks they experience. By refusing to recognise sex work as legitimate work, these countries directly or indirectly prevent young people who sell sex from accessing HIV prevention, treatment and support services for fear of arrest. The difficulty is intensified for those who are also living with HIV, transgender or men who have sex with men. The heavy burden of stigma and discrimination they frequently face within their communities is compounded by the fact that the law itself criminalises them for selling sex

In the face of this, it is critically important that individuals and organisations working with young people who sell sex, stand in solidarity with networks of sex workers at all levels – local, regional, national, international - like the African Sex Worker Alliance and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects. Joining the networks in advocating for the decriminalisation of sex work is the most meaningful way for us to support young people who sell sex in making their own choices. It is the most effective step we can take to enable them to reach out safely to sex worker groups and other organisations for support when they want and need it.

I’ve felt privileged to learn more about sex work since I met my friend three years ago. If you’re unsure about what it means to do sex work, I strongly suggest talking to a sex worker and finding out. Besides getting a greater insight into different choices, desires and experiences of others, you’ll also learn about yourself, your context and the contract(s) that you’ve signed up for!

Photo credit:
Copyright AVERT