South Africa Red Cross dispel sex workers myths in HIV education

Published: 18 August 2014 18:30 CET

By Hansika Bhagani, IFRC

When MG first arrived in the dusty transit town of Musina, northern South Africa – fleeing from the fighting Zimbabwe in 2008 – as an undocumented worker, she started off doing odd jobs. She was soon recruited into sex work by a friend for the transient mining and farming population. Nearly six years later MG is still doing the same work. But since she started, she has found it difficult to access any health services such as basic education and treatment. The South African authorities are hesitant to deal with foreign, undocumented sex workers.

It has been a challenge for MG to look after her health in a country with one of the highest rates of HIV in the world. In South Africa 17.9 per cent of the population is HIV positive. According to the South African National HIV Prevalence, Incidence and Behaviour Survey, 2012 the HIV prevalence in Limpopo is 9.2 per cent. Sex workers are one of the more vulnerable groups, as they have sex with multiple partners, and engage in risky behaviours such as forgoing adequate protection.

It was while at a local health clinic, MG encountered Stanley Mutero, South Africa Red Cross Society Musina Branch Coordinator. “A group of us were collecting condoms,” she recalls. “Our group was formed years ago and we talked with each other about health issues with little support from the local health practitioners. While we were there, we were talking about whether certain things would cause HIV. Some of us were quite confused. That’s when Stanley offered to give us a health talk as a group.”

Understanding transmission

MG and her colleagues weren’t aware of the numerous ways HIV could be transmitted. “Most of us only knew that it is spread through penetration,” she admits. “But we didn’t think it could be caught through oral sex, a one-off sexual encounter, or unprotected sex with a circumcised man. Stanley highlighted that knowing your status and that of your partner, getting tested regularly not having multiple partners is the best way to protect yourself.”

MG says the Red Cross health talk has changed the way she works now. “We used to go out on the streets with just the clothes we had on our backs. Men would come to us drunk without any protection but – because we needed money – we would not refuse them; oral, penetrative, anything they wanted. Other times we also let clients pay more have unprotected sex with us.

“After the health talk, we have learnt how to put a condom on a man, how to check for air, to check for expiry dates and keep them well stored,” she says.

One of the hardest things MG has had to face is knowing she is not safe, even from her friends. “We are not safe from each other as sex workers. We know that most of us are HIV positive. We can see a client going with one of us one night and then the next day he goes with another of us. To protect myself from my friend who I know is HIV positive, I have to use condoms.”

Stanley Mutero says he is encouraged by the response of MG and her friends to the health talks. “Most of the recipients of our health talks have been very keen to know more,” he says. “On the streets and in the community they stop me to ask more questions and seek clarity on other issues of concern. These talks at times seem to have little impact, but after a few days, meeting with them again it is evident that people have been educated and are changing their behaviour. We have had truck drivers begging us to provide condoms, sex workers who have requested our presence in their monthly meetings and individuals who go the extra mile to research more on the topics taught.”

And more organizations are getting involved. “In the last six months we have had sex worker rights group Sisonke, SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce)  Musina, Thohoyandou, Cape Town and Makhado coming up to Musina and working together on health education and access to health services,” Mutero says.

Other activities at Musina branch include the distribution of condoms, support for the sex workers forum, awareness campaigns on alcohol abuse and risky behaviours and awareness of HIV through sporting activities.

Find out more about the South African Red Cross Limpopo Musina branch here: