OFFERING sex for money (solliciting) is illegal in Senegal, but having sex for money is not. In th is mostly Muslim African country, a sex worker may ply her trade as long as she is registered as a prostitute, has regular check-ups at a designated clinic and is discreet. Dakar, Senegal’s capital, is one of the commercial sex capitals of Africa, with prostitutes coming from all over the sub-region as well as the Middle East. Why then does Senegal have one of the lowest number of AIDS cases in Africa — less than 3,000, in a population of 8.3 million? The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that legalising prostitution is part of the reason. Senegal’s government has been registering sex workers since 1966 — long before AIDS was ever heard of — to combat sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like Syphilis and Gonorrhoea.
Researchers agree that reducing STDs also reduces the rate of HIV infection. Each day, women crowd the clinic in downtown Dakar. “If you have yellow fever, if you have any little diseases they will tell you,” says a woman who gave her name as Sarah. “Sometimes they even give drugs for free. Otherwise you must buy them, or they will not stamp your card.” Registering does have its downsides. Sarah complains that police can harass her whether or not her card is up to date “And if you decide you no longer want to be a prostitute the de-registration process is slow if not impossible,” she says. Still, it’s worth it if the result is less AIDS. Problem is, many experts are not convinced that registering is the reason. Michael Tardy, who runs the Dakar clinic, admits that only about a quarter of Dakar’s professional prostitutes register. “The rest work clandestine.” Many women have sex for money in this society, she says. “Most don’t recognise themselves as prostitutes.” Some experts still see a logic for why AIDS levels are low. El Hadj Sy, co-ordinator of health programs for the NGO, Enda-Santi, says ‘informal’ sex workers often have only a few clients who become de facto husbands.
At the same time, he points out that polygamy is common. Men may legally marry up to four wives. “None of these people get check-ups, either,” he says. While Senegalese may have multiple partners, Sy denies that means they are promiscuous. “People have sex in clusters,” he says. Body fluids are only exchanged amongst a limited number of people. “In a polygamous household, if the man and his wives do not sleep with other people there is no way to get infected,” he argues, adding that “culture and religion are a strong social control.” Others are not so sure. For Kate Cisse Wane, head of the nation program on AIDS, “claims that because this is a Muslim country people have sexual behaviour different from the sexual behaviour of other African countries are questionable.” Sex workers in the villages often travel to the big cities or follow migrant workers, says Wane. “They then have sex with many men.” As for polygamy, Wane notes that when married men are searching for second or third wives they invariably “try out” lots of other women. And, she notes, “Senegalese men are often looking for second or third wives.” So why then are only 70,000 serpositive people — less than two percent of the population — in all of Senegal, while in nearby Abidjan the level is 15 percent? “We simple don’t know,” says Tardy. Most astonishingly, while 15 percent of the professional sex workers that come to the clinic are infected with the HIV, that level has not increased since 1992. There are still many theories.
Soulyman Mboup, a professor at Dakar university, has shown that the HIV 2 virus (which he discovered) is common in Senegal — it is both less virulent and less contagious than HIV 1. But there are also no clear answers as to why the type 2 virus is common here when sex workers come from all over Africa and why HIV 2 is common in other regions where AIDS levels are high. Western experts continue to stress the importance of legalising sex work. That way, they say, sex workers have been able to develop a ‘code of conduct’ to ensure that their clients use condoms. “If you tell a man that you won’t have sex without a condom he can’t just go to the next corner and find a sex worker who will,” says one sociologist. Yet according to sex workers themselves, some Senegalese men also insist on not using condoms. In a discussion group at the clinic, women complained that they do not have the power to enforce: “The Senegalese men say ‘I am not sick. Are you sick?… Then why do we need it’?” El Hadj Sy remains convinced that there are “indigenous strategies” for minimising the risk of infection.
Traditionally in many parts of Senegal, when a man dies his brother marries the widows and AIDS experts have long believed that when the death is AIDS related the HIV virus is then automatically spread to the brother and his first wives. But according to Sy, village elders are becoming aware of this risk. “In some villages they have changed the practices so widows must come and sit on the lap of their brother-in-law, but they no longer have to marry or have sex with him,” he says. Still, Sy admits he doesn’t know which are the strategies that are most significant in keeping AIDS levels low. Next year a study will be conducted in both Senegal and Uganda — a country with one of the highest incidents of AIDS. “Hopefully then we will know which factors count,” he says.
Night falls across Harare and Tracy Ncube sashays up Fife Avenue in a tight skirt and borrowed shirt to sell the only thing she can.
Half a dozen other young women are already stationed outside Tipperary’s bar and Ncube picks her spot, a tree opposite the car park illuminated by headlights. She has been a prostitute for two weeks and has bagged three customers, earning $45 (£25).
Zimbabwe’s youth were once considered Africa’s brightest, graduates of one of the continent’s best education systems which bred sophistication, confidence and ambition.
But the economy has crumbled and, with it, opportunity. There are virtually no jobs. Some 90 per cent of the country’s 11.8 million people live on less than $1 a day. Hyperinflation and food shortages are making the middle class destitute.
So, a fortnight ago, Ncube, 23, turned to prostitution. ‘These days life is very hard. My family doesn’t know that I do this, but how else am I to survive?’
She was visibly nervous. Her voice trembled, but she was determined to bag a fourth customer to earn between $7 and $20.
Aid jargon calls prostitution, or transactional sex, a ‘negative coping mechanism’, a desperate but effective way to get by.
Others emigrate, flying to Britain to work as nurses or jumping a fence to scrounge jobs in Botswana or South Africa. Their pay keeps many families afloat. For President Robert Mugabe, all this is excellent news. Inflation is close to 400 per cent, unemployment is at 70 per cent and hunger and homelessness are spreading, but there is no sign of revolution.
Yesterday the country was digesting the surprise acquittal of the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, who had been charged with attempting to assassinate the president. On Friday a high court in Harare dismissed the case which for two years had crippled his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). It was a significant boost for the party but there was little public jubilation.
Partly this was because police in riot gear patrolled the capital with guns and batons. A military jet roared low overhead to reinforce the authority of a regime in power since independence from Britain in 1980.
But another reason was resignation. Analysts say that the ruling Zanu-PF party will sweep parliamentary elections due next March because opposition has been crushed.
Starved of an independent media and the right to campaign freely, the MDC has withered, according to a senior MP who asked not to be named. Its narrow defeats in rigged elections in 2000 and 2002 were high-water marks, he said.
Both cause and symptom of its malaise are to be found on Fife Avenue. At night, the smart, leafy suburb close to the city centre is a red-light district.
None of the prostitutes had a good word to say about Mugabe, whom they accused of despotism, but none responded to the MDC’s plea to rally at the high court for Tsvangirai’s verdict.
‘Look, I’m a working girl. I need to sleep and do things around the house during the day,’ said Talent Mushonga, 23. Samantha Hazvinei, 24, said girls as young as 15 and middle-aged married women were turning up. ‘We are too many ladies looking for too few men. I need to come earlier and earlier and stay longer to get business.’
A UN report last year said poverty and hunger were fuelling child labour and prostitution. An aid worker, who did not want to be named because of a crackdown on non-governmental organisations, said she knew middle-aged women, including nurses, teachers and police officers, who had turned to prostitution.
Maxine, 27, a three-year veteran of Fife Avenue, said the new arrivals were reckless. ‘They are hot hot, chilli chilli, all in a rush. But they don’t last, they die fast.’
Official figures show that 24.6 per cent of the adult population is infected with HIV, one of the highest rates in the world.
Ncube said she preferred to use a condom but admitted the competition for customers – and frequent demand for unprotected sex – could weaken her resolve.
‘What else can I do? Go out and demonstrate against the government? Demand change?’ The notion made her laug