FOR many people especially those with conservative, religious views, sex work often called the world’s oldest profession, is dirty, immoral and those who do consent to it can’t possibly respect themselves.
Illegal in many countries, the occupation is vilified as criminal.
But for 55-year-old Winnie Phiri, from Beitbridge, sex work is real work and it’s time to treat it that way.
With her short tinted hair, glowing skin and elegant sense of style, Winnie, who looks younger than her age, shamelessly confessed about her secret life as a commercial sex worker for 20 years and one of the best and successful in the profession in the border town.
She is nicknamed “Councillor wemahure/ uKhansela wabonondindwa” for encouraging and warning her friends in the sex industry on the risks associated with the profession. In a lively and upbeat interview, Winnie, a mother of four, said poverty and desperation forced her into flesh peddling after the death of her husband.
Her voice is euphonious as she explains that for more than two decades she had been a sex worker and serviced “hundreds” of men to put food on the table.
She was also refreshingly frank about her experience as a prostitute, stating that she was now considering pulling the curtain on a trade she thrived in for 20 years.
A troubling walk: Why I became a sex worker
“I first became involved in sex work after the death of my husband. I was alone and in a state of mental and emotional collapse. My world had imploded, until one of the girls from next door started to explain to me how she went about selling sex.
“At first clients were taking advantage of me as I didn’t use protection and as a result I contracted HIV. The first time I sold sex was a single traumatic incident and I ended up smoking dagga to gather courage to sleep with different men,” Winnie told journalists during a site visit at the Centre for Sexual Health and HIV and Aids Research (CeSHHAR) Zimbabwe Drop in Centre in Beitbridge last week.
The site visit was organised by the National Aids Council (Nac) who are working with their implementing partner CeSHHAR Zimbabwe to ensure that commercial sex workers in the district have a space to access HIV testing and counselling, screening and treatment of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI), viral load testing, support condoms use and other related services they require.
She adds: “At first I had no idea that I should negotiate for protected sex and that I should be paid after every encounter so I was offering my service for free”.
She, however, said because of her age and with the coming of young and energetic sex workers she was no longer active to have many clients that she could “service”.
However, there was a much darker side to the job. Winnie recounted how she was once “abducted” by three men who took turns to forcibly have sex with her without protection, an experience she describes as surreal.
How I find empowerment in sex work
Winnie said her landlord introduced her to a team from CeSHHAR Zimbabwe where the officials took her through some education and training particularly regarding self-empowerment, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), promotion of HIV testing and counselling, networking and community building and psychosocial support.
“Through their training I quit smoking dagga and in 2012 I became a peer educator where I started counselling fellow sex workers and giving inputs on certain topics, most commonly health-related issues such as the benefits of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) or the importance of condom use.
“So going to CeSHHAR Zimbabwe changed me a lot as I no longer rely on sex work only. I’m now employed at the site and as a result I managed to buy a car and built a four-roomed house. I’m also running a drinks retailing business,” said Winnie.
At the drop in centre, Winnie also mentors local young women selling sex who are considered vulnerable to prostitution by sharing her personal experience.
She hailed initiatives by Nac and CeSHHAR Zimbabwe saying it allows them as sex workers to engage with each other as unique individuals greater than their sex worker identity.
Beitbridge District Aids Co-ordinator (DAC) for the Nac Edward Mulaudzi who is responsible for co-ordinating the HIV response in the district hailed the partnership with CeSHHAR Zimbabwe saying it was helping them to address the burden of the virus in the district.
“We have roughly about 400 to 800 sex workers within the district. Beitbridge is the busiest port of entry in the country and we have some sex workers coming from outside and that is why as a district we chose this model to ensure that we give services to our key populations.
“We also have about 300 to 350 sex workers that are on ART in the district, we realised that if we do not offer services then they are able to transmit the virus to the people they are interacting with,” said Mlaudzi.
The prevalence of HIV in Beitbridge stands at 11,76 percent while the incidence rate is 0,30 percent.
CeSHHAR gives sex workers hope for respectable living
CeSHHAR Beitbridge outreach worker Tonderai Rupiya said they were working with the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Nac and Global Fund to empower social entrepreneurs from key populations so that they could scale up existing or develop new business initiatives that can generate sustainable economic value and social impact for their communities.
“As CeSHHAR Zimbabwe we work with the Ministry Health and Child Care and Global Fund to support the economic capacity of key populations and in their diversity by providing clinical services and also prevention services that build resilience for sex workers in order for them not to contract HIV.
“We also have DREAMS (Determined, Resilient, Empowered, Aids-free, Mentored and Safe girls and women) programmes where we provide different prevention packages to young women selling sex,” said Rupiya.