Whatever It Takes – Surviving On The Golden Highway

17 Aug 2015 09:00am
By Anna Tervahartiala

WINDHOEK, 17 AUG (NAMPA) - The B8 highway, also known as the ‘Golden Highway’, starts from the town of Otavi in central Namibia and leads all the way to the border post of the Ngoma Bridge in Botswana.
For many, the road is for the transportation of goods and a way home but for others, the highway is a way of making a living.
Upon arriving at Katima Mulilo in the Zambezi Region, one cannot help but pass several petrol stations that during the day are hubs for travellers, but when night falls the stations turn into shelters for truck drivers making their way to and from Botswana, Angola, Zimbabwe and South-Africa. Katima Mulilo is the natural land port to central Africa and even though it is not obvious to the eye, the road does not only provide a living for the ones traversing it because for years, the ‘Golden Highway’ has provided hundreds of sex workers with a way of survival.
For 15 years, ‘Grace’ (name changed) was one of these workers.
“Let me put the reasons under the label of poverty,” Grace begins.
“When I was young, I also wanted to go to school,” she continues, but her life did not unfold that way.
The dreams and goals of the young woman were rearranged when Grace found herself pregnant at the age of 17. It was clear from the start that she would have to provide for the child alone and had no option but to find work. It also did not take long for the young mother to understand that her options for making ends meet in Katima Mulilo without a higher education were meek. Grace was 21 years old when she entered the sex industry.
“There was nothing else to do. No option at all.”
Even though the trade was something new to her, Grace was definitely not alone. The continuous flow of trucks, numerous shebeens and plentiful army bases in the region have ensured that opportunities for a sex worker are plentiful, but getting into the trade was not easy.
When explaining the logic of the industry, Grace begins by dividing the sex workers into three classes. The lowest class consists of the most inexperienced girls who work in shebeens and sell their services for approximately N.dollars 50 or anything anyone is willing to pay – “you negotiate the money for your next meal”. The middle class works in places like truck depots or have regular customers whom they charge anything from N.dollars 100 to N.dollars 200. The highest class of sex workers usually work in hotels and offer services starting from N.dollars 500.
When looking at business in Katima Mulilo, Grace says a sex worker can make money every day.
While engaging in sexual activities for reward is not by definition illegal in Namibia, the Combating of Immoral Practices Act of 2000 criminalises several sex-related activities that make the work of a sex worker illegal.
Soliciting sex in public, pandering and making a living wholly or in part with the earnings of a sex worker are only a few of the criminalised activities, which means sex workers are outlawed by trade.
Despite the list of laws limiting sex work, the report ‘Whose Body Is It?’ published by the Legal Assistance Centre of Namibia in 2002, underlines that there are only a few laws restricting the purchase of the services of a sex worker. When looking at the law from an equality point of view, the report notes that most of the people employed in the Namibian sex industry are women and most of the clients are men. Thus, it is clear to see that the law is heavily gender biased.
As the service providers are the ones who are penalised, sex workers find themselves working undercover and without laws to protect them.
Recalling cases in which law enforcement officials threatened and denied sex workers assistance, Grace says: “Sometimes the women get beaten or abused by customers, but what can they do? If you go to the police, the first thing they ask is where and why did this happen. And what can a sex worker say? Are you going to say at the truck port?
“Then you end up going to the hospital or home and you continue work when you are feeling well. Life goes on,” she continues with a shrug.
When the Namibian Police Force’s (NamPol) Regional Commander, Boniface Mukendwa was given the opportunity to comment on the issue of sex workers in Katima Mulilo, he stated that he is not able to comment since the regional police never come across prostitution.
When contrasting the statement of the police commander to that of Razzen Muzibe, the site coordinator for the Walvis Bay Corridor Group, a transport promoting organisation that also provides health services for mobile populations such as truck drivers and sex workers, one thinks that the two are talking of different towns.
Muzibe has been working in Katima Mulilo since 2010 and says that they have been busy ever since they started. Even though he is not able to give exact numbers of the people involved in the sex industry, Muzibe recalls a study partnered by the Walvis Bay Corridor Group targeting sex workers in the region, in which the research team interviewed more than 300 women.
Grace sums it up: “It is because of our culture and traditions. You cannot talk about it. But sex work here in Katima, it is too much.”
When looking at the everyday risks involved in sex work, it is not only the threat of violence that the workers face but also sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). During the past years, HIV/Aids has become widely associated with both the Zambezi Region and prostitution in general. According to the National HIV Sentinel Survey from the year 2014, the HIV prevalence rate of Zambezi stood at 36 per cent, whereas the national rate was 16,9 per cent.
When talking about the health risks of the trade, Grace is quick to note that most sex workers and customers are aware of the risks and come prepared with a condom but in spite of this, a sex worker is rarely the one who makes the final decision on whether a condom is used or not.
“It might happen that a customer will tell you that they want to sleep with you and they will give you N.dollars 1 000, but only if you allow them to have sex without a condom. With a condom you will be paid 500,” Grace explains.
“Yes, it is risky, but what can you do? You need money to survive.”
When talking about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, Grace emphasises that it is not only the customers that limit the options of the sex workers but also the stigma associated with the trade that keeps many women from seeking proper treatment if infected. Grace herself has colleagues who feel too shy to go to health centres where they know they will be insulted for the work they are engaged in.
“That is why most of them are dying. They know they have no way of getting help, or of course you can go, but you will be shouted at because you were there the week before and the week before that. Many just end up staying at home.”
Some of the women Grace knew when she started to work with years ago are still around, while others have passed away.
Two years ago, her daughter completed high school and enrolled in college to become a police officer. It was then that Grace decided that she had to abandon the profession as the risks had outgrown the benefits.
Helping her daughter to understand the situation, Grace said: “I used to tell my daughter that I am a sex worker because of her, and that is why I need her to be someone in the future. I would tell her that if I had not worked, she would not be where she is now.”
Even though Grace was able to get out of the trade, she knows that there are still hundreds of sex workers who face the same challenges she used to live under herself.
When looking at the future, Grace hopes to see sex work legalised so that the people involved can be treated as equals.
“If there is a will to end prostitution, the officials need to ask why there is prostitution instead of discriminating against the ones who do not have a choice,” Grace emphasises.
“Sometimes I do not want to think about it. One does not do this job because of love or desire. Some regrets are there, but then you know: my children and I survived.”