First life, then money

A sex worker in a clingfilm-tight red dress sashays across the forecourt of the petrol station to talk with the driver in the idling long haulage truck.

But they’re not negotiating a price – she’s educating the man about the benefits of protected sex.

“If they won’t wear a condom, I just walk away,” says Julia, a 20-year-old woman who’s been working on the streets of Mozambique’s capital city since 2012.

In a country where the economy and infrastructure are still bruised from years of civil war, and half the population lives under the poverty line, Julia’s willingness to walk away from a trick is a financial gamble.

The £6 she charges for a rapidinha – or “quickie” – is money the single mother desperately needs to support herself and her three-year-old daughter.

Levels of unemployment are devastatingly high in urban areas of the country, and despite handing out hundreds of CVs after leaving school, Julia says she had no choice but to work on the streets.

“But we tell the women: first life, then money,” says Esperanza Malumbe, the founder of a local community-based organisation ABAVAMO which aims to educate and empower Mozambican sex workers.

According to the most recent UNAIDS report, Mozambique has the fifth largest number of people living with HIV in the world, and the prevalence of HIV amongst women doubles to 15 per cent between adolescence and the age of 25.

The report also reveals that the districts – including Maputo – with the highest density of people living with HIV are located along the country’s transport corridors to South Africa, Swaziland and Malawi. These are areas that are associated with rapid economic growth, and high levels of migration and mobility that act as a catalyst for increased transactional sex.

Despite these increased risks, Malumbe says many sex workers are still willing to have unprotected sex if their clients offer to pay double.

“They tell me, ‘tomatoes on the stall can’t choose the buyer’.”

But a 2012 survey showed that a third of the Maputo-based female sex workers interviewed were HIV+, and 48% of interviewees said they lacked comprehensive knowledge about HIV transmission.

So tonight, like every night for the past couple of years, Malumbe and her colleagues walk around the periphery of the petrol station and talk to the dozen or so sex workers as they mill about waiting for clients.

Malumbe pretends to be one of them, and tells them she’s HIV+, to gain their confidence.

Every few minutes a truck pulls into the station which straddles the EN2 highway – the asphalt artery leading from the capital to South Africa and Swaziland. Some of the drivers pull over for a beer at one of the ramshackle barracas; others are here purely for sex.

“No other organisation is helping these stigmatised women,” says Malumbe. “People say that these women only know how to have sex, because they’re illiterate.”

ABAVAMO not only hands out condoms and femidoms to the women, but also teaches them how to negotiate safe sex with men. And, if a client cannot be convinced, then there are strategies for that too.

“We tell the women to get the man drunk so that he’s then unaware of when the women puts in a femidom,” says Malumbe laughing. “This means the women is safe, but that he’ll also keep coming back thinking he’s having unprotected sex.”

But Julia also sees the femidom as a symbol of empowerment.

“It’s something I can put into my own body without having to trust the man – it’s also stronger and won’t break.”

Just last week the Mozambican government issued a press release announcing the findings of a new survey of miners and truckers – and it appears to vindicate the efforts of ABAVAMO to educate sex workers about the need to take responsibility for their own health.

The survey revealed that three in four truckers had never received any prevention material. Many of them did not know their HIV status, and 84 per cent of those who did, were HIV+.

“I tell them their bodies are their livelihood, and so they have to take care of themselves,” says Malumbe. “The men certainly won’t.”

Fifty-year-old Shuna also says she’s now not willing to jeopardise her health for a client. Following her divorce and with no formal education, she says sex work was the only way to support her six children.

“If I could change, I would tomorrow,” Shuna says. “But at least for the moment I can’t stop, so I need to take care of myself.”

Without the guidance of ABAVAMO, she says many of the women here tonight would now be HIV+.

But Malumbe says educating Mozambique’s sex workers about the dangers of unprotected sex remains their main challenge. Despite a new awareness of HIV and AIDS amongst the women working besides the EN2, there remains a large gap between knowledge and an actual change in behaviour.

“We can’t be there 24/7, and when the two are alone,” says Malumbe, smiling. “So we’ve started to tell the women that anyone who wants sex without a condom must be HIV+.”

Marc Ellison travelled to Mozambique with the International Reporting Project (IRP).