Encouraging Respect for Sex Workers’ Rights in Mozambique
Since Fatima turned 14, she has been a mother, a mechanic, and a housekeeper.
“Our parents passed away from cholera when I was about 14 years old and I dropped out of school to look after my sister and brother,” said Fatima, who lives in Maputo, Mozambique. “This is how my story started. We didn’t have food and I was the oldest, so I felt very responsible for my siblings.”
Fatima turned to a variety of jobs to earn enough cash, but nothing was lucrative enough. One day that changed when she was cleaning her neighbor’s house. “I once found a lot of cash under her pillow when I was doing the cleaning and I was so curious about where she got this money from. I eventually figured it out.”
Her neighbor was a sex worker—and Fatima soon followed in her footsteps.
Fatima secretly followed her neighbor one night.
“I got on the same bus she got onto, hiding myself,” she said.
She then found a group of older sex workers who took her in.
Sex workers move in groups to support and protect each other. This group took me in because I was young and they wanted to help me. They explained to me how it all works.”
As a sex worker, Fatima finally said that she doesn’t have to struggle financially. “I’m proud of my work because my income supports nine people.”
Making sex work safer
Sex work is a dangerous job—no matter how you look at it. Sex workers are regularly victims of physical and sexual abuse. Some clients refuse to wear condoms, exposing sex workers to HIV. Law enforcement can be perpetrators of violence themselves, and as a result, many sex workers are reluctant to trust the police and avoid reporting violence or seeking legal aid.
Pathfinder International works with partners including the Aidsfonds-supported Hands Off program to protect the rights, health, and well-being of sex workers like Fatima. This includes:
- Making sure sex workers know and can exercise their rights.
- Sensitizing the police about how to effectively engage with sex workers.
- Working with health center staff to destigmatize sex work and ensure sex workers receive the services they need, especially HIV prevention and treatment and contraception.
Working closely with local partners, Pathfinder helped to launch the Sex Workers’ Rights Platform in 2017. Through the platform, local partners have posted representatives to 11 provincial capital cities and four districts who support the legal and health rights of sex workers. These representatives help to ensure cases of violence against sex workers do not go unreported.
This past year, Pathfinder International and Mozambique’s General Command of Police and Ministry of the Interior developed a manual for sensitization sessions with the police. The manual is being used to encourage the police in Mozambique to respect sex workers and their rights, and to develop healthier relationships between the police and sex workers.
“I never let a policeman try to make me bribe him or let him have sex with me,” said Julia. Like Fatima, Julia engages in sex work in Maputo. She said one of the worst parts of her job is being arrested for no reason.
After being forced to drop out of school because her mother could not afford to send her, Julia took up sex work to support herself. Julia has been involved with Hands Off for more than five years.
“I know my rights now,” said Julia, who has become a respected spokeswoman for the rights of sex workers around the world.
“I even went to Geneva to present to the UN about sex worker rights!” said Julia.
“I’m not going to lie to you, I can’t see myself doing anything else, even if I could.”
Despite discrimination in their communities and mistreatment by law enforcement, both Fatima and Julia are proud of the work they do and the women they have become.
Pathfinder International is here to support Julia, Fatima, and their fellow sex workers.
Photos: Madelene Cronjé
Interviews: Victoria John
All photographs and stories used here were documented by Aidsfonds under the Hands Off program. We thank Aidsfonds for sharing the stories of Fatima and Julia and for their ongoing partnership to protect sex workers of all genders in Mozambique.