From One Sex Worker to Another

Photographs by Morgana Wingard

Precious, a commercial sex worker in Mozambique. 

Precious, 31, moved to Mozambique in 2007 because of tough times at home in Zimbabwe. Her parents passed away, the economy was crumbling and it was hard to find work. She started buying and selling second hand clothes when she first arrived in Mozambique. But, she couldn’t make enough. In 2008 she turned to commercial sex work (CSW) to make ends meat. "Before I had a boyfriend, but we used to fight all the time. And he lied. He said he wasn't married, but I found out later he was. Working on the street is better. You don't make any promises to each other."

Precious is one of many women who have traveled to Mozambique from Zimbabwe—a country suffering economically due to the tyrannical rule of their 29-year dictator Robert Mugabe. They come looking for work as house cleaners or selling small wares. When they can’t make enough, they turn to the street.   

The chances of catching HIV for someone in Precious’ business are high. The HIV rate in Mozambique was 10.5% in 2015 according to the World Bank, but among commercial sex workers, truck drivers, and men who have sex with men it jumps to 30-40% according to MSF.

MSF peer educator, Constantino, tests a comercial sex worker for HIV, yellow fever and Syphilis while Patti, another MSF peer educator, counsels her inside of the MSF vehicle in her neighborhood. She was last tested in 2014, but this is the first time she's been tested by MSF. This time she tested negative for HIV and yellow fever, but positive for syhpillis.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) corridor project helps provide healthcare for these key populations in order to reduce HIV incidence and increase care amongst those most-at-risk groups. In 2015, they provided testing for HIV and sexually transmitted infections to 967 long-distance truck drivers and 548 sex workers, a particularly vulnerable group with an HIV prevalence of 55%.

MSF works with a team of peer educators, many of whom are former or current sex workers, who go to the street to provide sex workers and their clients with condoms, counseling, testing, and healthcare education. 

“I want to help sex workers prevent sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS," explains one peer educator—a former sex worker herself.  

Precious, a commercial sex worker from Zimbabwe at her home in Beira, Mozambique.

Precious knows several family members and friends who have contracted the disease, though not necessarily from CSW. “Yes, I’m scared of getting it," she admits. “Sometimes my clients tell me they have HIV, but we use condoms for protection.” 

She says 80-85% of the time it's easy to convince men to use condoms. Sometimes they bring their own, but if not she provides chocolate or banana-flavored condoms given to her for free by MSF. Most of her customers are businessmen from other provinces in Mozambique. She works Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night from 9-2AM.

There’s no romance in her businesses. Clients pay based on the amount of time. “I like the customers who pay 100-200 Meticals ($1.30-$2.60). If they want more than that, they have too many needs. There’s no romance. No more than 5 minutes.” After meeting a client she’ll take them to a local lodge or they’ll go to a car or a hidden place.

“This lifestyle is dangerous, but you are a soldier. You have to be strong,” she says.

In the mornings, the women typically gather and talk about what happened the night before. So far nothing bad has happened to Precious she’s known girls who were taken to a house with several men, locked inside, and forced to have sex with all of them.

Precious at home in Beira with her one year old son.

She spends her days at home with her 1-year-old son. Sometimes she works as a cleaner part time as well, but it’s getting more difficult to get money these days. And, now that she has a child she has to keep a tight budget, no extra spending, now that she has a son to support.

In April, Precious agreed to be a part of a new MSF Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PreP) study. As a member of the study, she’ll receive medication which reduces her chances of getting HIV. Every 3 months she’ll be tested to confirm if it is working. Though most of her family doesn’t know she is a commercial sex worker, she’s excited to show them her Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PreP) medication. “I will tell them this is a medicine taken by people who are HIV negative. I’m very happy there is PreP to protect people from HIV.” 

Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PreP) reduces the chances of contracting HIV.