Sex workers balance risk and reward in Lesotho

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This article is part of a series produced for Religion News Service’s parent organization Religion News Foundation with support from the Arcus Foundation and Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa. It emerged from a November 2017 journalism training workshop in Cape Town, South Africa.

MASERU, Lesotho – Sex workers have become less noticeable in Lesotho since a police raid last December pushed them to quieter districts of the small Southern African nation’s capital city.

Police spokesperson Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli confirmed the raid occurred but said he was not aware of some sex workers’ allegations that police harassed them and solicited free sex in the process.

Buying and selling sex is illegal under Lesotho’s 2010 Penal Code.

“I know our job poses a serious threat to our lives, but we do not have any alternative,” said Limakatso Mokhothu, who has done sex work for more than three years.

Mokhothu, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is a factory worker who earns M700 ($58) per month, bringing in M1000 ($83) if she works overtime. She says her salary cannot fully cover her family’s needs, so she supplements her income with sex work, earning between M200 ($17) and M600 ($50) on a successful night.

“It is extremely hard to work double shifts, but family problems are forcing me to do this,” she said.

Mokhothu said commercial sex workers in Maseru often target truck drivers delivering goods from South Africa because they are “good buyers” and pay more than local men, leading some sex workers to compete for wealthier customers.

Prices are negotiable, but if clients want to have sex without a condom, the price will increase.

This poses particular risk in Lesotho where 25 percent of the adult population is HIV-positive. 9,900 people died from HIV/AIDS-related illnesses in 2016 in this country of 2.2 million, according to UNAIDS.

To help protect sex workers, the Lesotho Planned Parenthood Association (LPPA) launched a project in 2013 called Mphatlalatsane. “Mphatlalatsane” means “early morning star,” that which brings light, in several regional languages. The project provided free medical care and condoms to sex workers along with training to help them develop and manage new businesses.

LPPA public relations officer Tlali Matela said the project, which was phased out in 2014, did not prohibit participants from performing sex work but tried to provide them with alternative ways to generate income.

With training from the Basotho Enterprises Development Corporation, the project’s 18 participants developed business plans for bricklaying, salons, poultry farms, clothing stalls, and small-scale shops. Only the salons were tested.

Matela said it was difficult for LPPA to monitor the projects and believes most failed due to lack of resources.

“Their businesses faced a lot of challenges,” Matela said, citing low education rates and economic pressures among participants.

Nthabiseng Mokotjo, a sex worker who started a salon with funding from Mphatlalatsane, still runs the salon during the day and performs sex work at night.

Mokotjo, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said her life is better with two streams of income.

“I have done this work before, and it is difficult for me to leave it,” she said of her decision to stay in sex work.

Lineo Molefi, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, was trained under Mphatlalatsane to operate a knitting business but faced too much competition to make it profitable.

“It was difficult to have a breakthrough in this project. There are just too many people who do knitting,” she said.

Four years after the Mphatlalatsane project ended, LPPA still provides sex workers with health services including treatment for sexually transmitted infections, HIV testing, family planning, and counseling.

Matela said LPPA now hopes to provide these services to sex workers in the northern Lesotho town of Maputsoe using a mobile clinic.

Majara Molupe is a journalist based in Lesotho. 

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