Sex workers go virtual

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted most industries across the globe and the oldest profession in the world has probably suffered the most setbacks. Strict lockdowns
and health protocols prohibiting their work have forced Gaborone’s commercial sex
workers to adapt quickly to the new normal.

Prostitution has migrated online and is surviving on social media platforms like whatsapp where increasingly desperate sex workers ply their trade. Some even offer non-contact sexual solutions for clients who are weary of COVID-19. Erotica is ready sold to clients for as little as thirty pula for pictures and videos.

Price lists and contacts circulate freely, albeit under risk of falling foul of police. Selling sex in Botswana is not illegal, but other misdemeanors such as loitering are used to intimidate prostitutes.

Even though the country has in the past attempted to legalize sex work to help combat HIV/AIDS, the move met strong resistance from the Catholic Church. Gaborone West shopping complex is the capital’s infamous hub for the sex trade. The majority of the prostitutes in Gaborone and Francistown are from Zimbabwe. In 2013, Botswana’s
Ministry of Health estimated there were more than 1,500 Zimbabwean sex workers in the country, mainly in Gaborone, Francistown and Kasane, out of a total of about 4,000 prostitutes in those three areas.

“I used to get my clients at bars, nightclubs and mostly in the Gaborone West streets. COVID- 19 has shown us flames, we are not able to get loans or pensions because our profession is not legally recognized. Most of us have resorted to social media where we upload our nude pictures with phone numbers attached. We then hope for the calls,”
said Princess Modise a 28-year-old sex worker.

When businesses were temporarily closed during the lockdown, SADC governments, such as Botswana and South Africa, adopted policies to subsidize salaries. Sex workers were excluded from these benefits. In some instances, sex worker-led organisations were deliberately excluded from relief despite the availability of government funding for vulnerable populations.

As COVID-19 regulations eased and businesses reopened, sex workers’ places of operation: the streets, bars, and clubs; remained closed. This extended sex workers’ suffering and that of their families. When the rules of operation changed, it did not include sex workers.

Selling sex in nightclubs, lodgings, bars and brothels is safer, explained Dr. Patricia
Owira, ICRHK Project Coordinator. Client registration books, closed circuit television,
ejection of violent clients and peer-led responses to sexual violence boost the safety of sex workers.

Yet alleged violence perpetrated by the police against sex workers remains rife. In April, the Global Network of Sex Workers’ Projects and UNAIDS denounced punitive crackdown measures against sex workers, including compulsory COVID-19 testing, arrests and threats to deport migrant sex workers.

“Things are slow, unlike in the olden days where I would get at least 10 clients in a day in GWest. We are even forced to lower our costs at times due to desperation to pay bills,” Modise said.