A much younger me, with Ms. Rachel, the outspoken leader/mama of our women’s group, and Prudence
Tomorrow, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. Here in the US, it’s mostly not recognized, but in Zambia, it’s a national holiday. One of the most important projects I worked on as a Peace Corps Volunteer was started on International Women’s Day. It was an organization I helped to start, where we taught commercial sex workers (otherwise known as prostitutes, but less stigmatizing) about HIV prevention and provided training for other skills that would earn them income. We stumbled across this idea, because we tried to plan a one-day event for those women and discovered that no one else in the HIV field was working with them and there was a big hole that we could fill. The women we met with were eager to talk to us and learn about protecting themselves. They taught me so very much about bravery and courage during our 2 years together.
I was not prepared for the stigma attached to their work, but I learned very quickly. One of my former professors from university was following my adventures and updating her classes on my work. When she told her class about my work with these women, a few of her students told her they were disgusted that I was helping “those kinds of women”. When I received that answer, I was absolutely livid and I wrote my response in a letter that was read to the class. Here it is:
Every day I see beautiful children who are smart and desperately want to go to school. They don’t have pencils or paper or even shoes, but they want to learn. They walk several kilometers, sometimes barefoot, just to go to school. In Zambia, school is free through grade 7, and many do make it that far, but they still have work to do at home, to keep their family going. After grade 7, the obstacles are tremendous and most end up quitting. It’s too expensive to pay tuition, exam fees, buy uniforms, etc. And most secondary schools are far away, so there are boarding fees and travel as well. These are families that have NO money. They’re subsistence farmers, which provides for their food but rarely any income. On top of that, AIDS, malaria, and TB are making them orphans at an alarmingly fast rate. This makes school nearly impossible.
Now, imagine you’re a 14 year old girl and both of your parents have recently died. You’ve just finished grade 7, with good grades and you love school, but you have 7 younger siblings who are completely relying on you. You don’t have any other family to turn to for help. A “nice” man who owns the nearest store offers to provide for your family if you do a few “things” for him. Or, you’re 24 and your husband dies. You have 6 children to support and someone suggests that there is an easy way to make money selling sex. You don’t want to, but you don’t see any other options. You don’t have a job, you didn’t finish school, there is no money and you need food.
There are countless reasons that women become sex workers, but in Zambia, they all boil down to a lack of options. If you’re disgusted by their choices, then you’ve probably never had to truly wonder where your food would come from or how you would survive. The lack of true choices is the largest curse for many women all over the world. None of us has a right to judge these women. We owe them our respect as survivors and entrepreneurs. They’ve taken a hopeless situation and found a brave solution that makes them miserable, but is better than starvation. (If there were no clients, they wouldn’t be even in business, but there is no stigma for men who hire them- however, I’ll leave that subject for another time.) They risk their lives every time they go to work, because of diseases and the prevalence of abuse by their clients. When you work in an illegal field, it’s hard to go to the police to report a client who mistreats you. Especially when the police and local officials are the most common clients. They put up with all these risks for less than $2 per client service. Please, please don’t go throwing stones unless you’ve been in their shoes.
So, why am I showing you a letter I wrote several years ago? Well, first off, I hope that by sharing the story of those brave women and their courageous choices, I can help inspire the changes the world needs for women like them. And, I think we all need a reminder not to judge the choices of others. I was so inspired by the women I worked with and grateful that I was able to work with them. Ms. Rachel, in the photo above, was willing to talk openly about the topics everyone else avoided, to help the other women get the courage to stand up to their clients and protect themselves from disease. In a society where women are seldom encouraged to speak up in public, she is a real heroine.
One of the other, even more horrible, reasons that women end up in sex work is slavery and trafficking, where they are forced into the work against their will, by pimps or traffickers or even their own family. This is a far larger problem than most of us realize, even here in the US. Those women (and men) need options and support for making a new life for themselves, not stigma. (And yes, there are some sex workers who chose that path, despite having other choices. I want to make it clear that I believe all sex workers deserve our respect, regardless of how they came to the work.) If you want to learn more about women’s struggles around the world and all the ways you can get involved, check out: Half the Sky Movement. They have stories of AMAZING women doing AMAZING work all over the world. And if you are or were a sex worker, please know I have respect for you, regardless of your reasons. You are no less wonderful and worthy than anyone else. Wishing everyone a wonderful International Women’s Day!
|Raven Chitalo believes in the healing magic of laughter and the power of women to make great changes in our own lives and therefore in the world. She spent 3 years in Zambia, as a community health volunteer with Peace Corps. At Discovering Your Dance, she guides women across the bridge from stuck to fabulous, by reminding you of your own inner beauty, worth, and power, especially when you’re going through dramatic life transitions. She will help you to reclaim the joy and passion that you still have deep within to release your inner fabulosity.|