Sex work, a human rights conundrum

Prostitution is one of the oldest professions in the world but besides the stigma around it, there are still a lot of risks and dangers faced by ladies of the night.
With unconventional sexual practices, especially linked to prostitution, HIV remains rampant and although organisations have been set up to protect the rights of sex workers, there has not been much improvement in that aspect the world over. In the Namibian landscape, however, it is because prostitution is still a criminal offence.
Rights not Rescue; an organisation that has been fighting to get prostitution in Namibia decriminalised, says the situation has reached a tipping point.
“Sex workers are still discriminated against in Namibia. There are nights when sex workers can be raped while roaming the streets in pursuit of clients. Unfortunately, they cannot report such incidences to the police, as their cases are rejected without consideration because they are sex workers,” says Rights not Rescue executive director, Nicodemus Aoxamub, who is an active sex worker himself.
Although the organisation, which boasts of more than 3000 sex workers under its wings, has been speaking for the interests of sex workers since its establishment in 2010, there are still many murky grounds. For example, there are still many active child sex workers in Namibia.
“We would like to work hand in hand with the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare, to protect such children. I got involved in prostitution when I was ten years old due to poverty and I would not want that for any other child,” says Aoxamub, adding, “Our biggest challenge is; such children do not trust strangers, yet Government sees sex workers as criminals, hence we need to remove these old laws and work together for everyone’s sake”.
Social commentators believe if human rights groups work together with Government, many ills that occur within the trade, such as HIV contraction during forced contacts would diminish. For instance, the brutal murders of two sex workers, Juanita Mabuka and Melanine Janse, could have been avoided had there been dialogue between Government and human rights groups, Aoxamub believes.
To the conservative women who believe sex workers add to the decay of morals in the country and fear that prostitutes will eventually lure their husbands away, Aoxamub says; “Even if that were the case, we are still human beings who deserve all our human rights”.
Currently, Right not Rescue distributes condoms and lubrications to sex workers in all the 14 regions of the country. The organisation also provides free pap smear, which is a cervical screening test used to detect cervical cancer. Some sex workers who seek clients via the internet instead of roaming the streets at night also make use of Rights not Rescue’s internet services.
For most, financial problems are the reason why they turn to prostitution but exactly when that gets fulfilled varies. Aoxamub reveals one of his friends who once made a living as a nurse during the day traded her nursing gown for fishnet stockings and pink miniskirts during the night.
“She simply wanted more money,” explains Aoxamub.
Speaking under anonymity, Aoxamub’s nurse friend, who is a member of Rights not Rescue says, “We get enough education about how to protect ourselves. However, sometimes a client can pay up to N$5000 an hour to have sex without protection. But I am now aware of the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and unwanted pregnancies and so I stay cautious.”
Another sex worker who also prefers anonymity says, “I work with friends who are fellow sex workers so that when a client wants my services, they first pay and I leave the money with my friends. In the past, I would not demand cash upfront from my clients. But I changed my habits when it became clear that after having sex, some clients would dump me wherever they pleased, without paying for my services.”