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Published on March 6th, 2007 | by admin

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“I didn’t ask for this life”

Poverty is swelling the number of sex workers in Namibia

In the bare bright light of her single bedroom flat Fiina (24) applies the finishing touches to her make-up in front of the cracked full-length wall mirror. The sweet scent of her perfume drifts heavily through the small room. Outside, darkness is slowly draping over the border town of Oshikango, in the Ohangwena Region.   She takes a few steps back from the mirror, staring into her own eyes for a moment. “I don’t look like a ‘kasarand’, do I?” She quietly asks. Kasarand is the term Portuguese speakers from across the border use for sex workers/prostitutes.   Fiina, a mother of two, says she has been a sex worker for four years. During the day she works as a cashier in one of the Chinese shops lining the main road cutting through Oshikango. She says her monthly wage is N$800.   Although she does not want to reveal how much she earns from sex work, she says it is a lot more than what she earns from her day job. Fiina says she supports her children and mother, who live in a rural village, with the money she makes from sex work. None of her relatives know that she is a sex worker and she says she would like to keep it that way.   “When I first moved here I always refused the Angolan men that approached me [for sex], but when you have nothing to eat at home and someone flashes one hundred US dollars in you face, you do what is needed to survive,” she says. Fiina says she does not go for HIV testing, flatly stating: “I’m healthy.”   As with Fiina, many young women from impoverished areas in northern Namibia, and elsewhere in the country, are drawn into sex work by the lure of easy money. And research shows that poverty is the number one factor pushing people, not only women, into the sex trade. Exploration of depravity   Available research suggests there are between 10,000 and 15,000 sex workers currently operating mainly in burgeoning urban centres across the country. In her soon to be released report, titled ‘Prostitution in Windhoek/Namibia – An exploration of poverty’, Zambian researcher Merab Kambamu Kiremire examines the underlying factors pushing an ever growing number of people, especially girls and women aged between 16 and 30, into the sex trade. The trafficking of women and children into the trade was also a central focus of her research.   Kiremire found that poverty and unemployment, combined with the growing migration stream from rural to urban areas, are the main factors swelling the numbers of sex workers. Other factors include child abuse and neglect, lack of social support networks in the wake of the death of a primary income provider, and severe alcoholism and violence in the home.  Sex workers also graphically describe the violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and demeaning and depraved acts, such as bestiality, they are sometimes forced to succumb to for money. Kiremire’s research focused mainly on the sex trade in Windhoek, Oshakati and Oshikango, as well as the coastal towns of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay.  The research also finds that 11 percent of sex workers in Namibia are foreigners, all from sub-Saharan Africa. Decriminalise?   Kiremire’s not the first notable research to be conducted on sex work in Namibia. In 2002, the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) released a report entitled Whose Body Is It? – Commercial sex work and the law in Namibia, in which it explicitly called for a legal approach involving decriminalisation and discouragement. Over the intervening years, the LAC’s Dianne Hubbard has consistently called  for decriminalisation.   Also in 2001, then Health Minister Libertina Amathila, now Deputy Prime Minister, and National Council member Margareth Mensah caused something of a stir when they both called for the registration and legalisation of sex workers and sex work.   Arguments for decriminalisation or legalisation are based on the vulnerability of women and girls to HIV infection and violence. Kiremire’s research found that 94 percent of sex workers have suffered some form of violence at the hands of customers and pimps and earlier research by the Stand Together project found that 75 percent of sex workers are HIV positive.   However, Kiremire is of the opinion that Namibia, like other SADC and developing countries, cannot begin to talk about decriminalising or legalising sex work as the social nets, such as an effective and efficient health system and sufficient employment growth, are not in place to provide effective services or alternatives to sex workers.   Furthermore, she says decriminalisation or legalisation has not been proven to lessen the dangers involved in sex work. “I do not see the safety yet. Until someone can show us it’s safe, we cannot talk about safety,” she says.   Kiremire says sex work, sex tourism and sex trafficking, especially of children, is becoming a growing problem across the SADC region and that governments are failing to address these issues. “Let policymakers tell us whether we have safe societies for young people,” she says. “This research tries to create space for debate,” she adds. In 2006, Health Minister Richard Kamwi was quoted saying that the decriminalisation or legalisation of sex work is not open for discussion in Namibia. Pimpin’ it up   At Oshikango, seated in the pool area of the Piscas Entertainment Motel, Ricardo ‘Ndakolo’ Damaseb, talks freely about the sex trade at the town straddling the Namibia/Angola border.   Two young Angolan truck drivers approach him and negotiations ensue. “I’ll get you the best, but you know it’ll cost you my friend,” Damaseb says in Portuguese.   The 23-year-old Damaseb has been a pimp at the town for over five years. “This is what I do for a living. I don’t have another job,” he says.   Piscas is a hotbed of the sex trade at the town as it is a popular truck stop. Damaseb refuses to say how many women he pimps for, but only that he takes his cut from most of the sex workers frequenting Piscas. Damaseb says the price of sex ranges from N$100 for a ‘quicky’ to US$100 for a night. He adds that abortions are common and that most of the women/girls are alcoholics.   “The popular ones are dead [of AIDS related illnesses],” he says. “They (sex workers) don’t enjoy it. They only do it for the money.”       In Namibia, sex work and the activities of those who profit from the trade, such as Damaseb, fall within the scope of the  Combating of Immoral Practices Act (Act 21 of 1980), but no-one ever seems to have been charged under the provisions of this Act, suggesting the law is not being enforced or challenged.   Not a dozen steps from the door of Piscas Entertainment Motel, Maricious Ndhishinbwa, of UN-funded Corridors of Hope, distributes condoms from the NGOs offices in a modified container.    “We give condoms to truck drivers, students and possibly sex workers. We give service to whoever wants it. We don’t have a programme where we go out and find out who is a sex worker or not,” he says.   Meanwhile, back at her one room flat, Fiina has finished applying her make up. Before stepping out to meet a visiting relative from Tsumeb, who doesn’t know how she earns extra money, she says: “I didn’t ask for this life.”


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