Sex Work in Malawi: An Eternal Problem Can’t be Resolved by Punishment
The Bwandilo street in Lilongwe has never received much of the city’s attention as to provide it with much-needed street lighting. But its citizens have given it generous attention of some other kind. At night, the street becomes lit up by young women waving down cars for a chance to find a customer who intentionally seeks a nice escort for a short time. Sometimes for an entire night. When business isn’t going too well, the women at Bwandilo have more recently been seen to exploit a new weapon, the flashing of the full anatomy of their bare insides, as better persuasion for those customers to whom a hand signal is inadequate marketing. Bwandilo is a place where many despise, yet many men worship that even the dignified are willing to make fools of themselves, alcohol usually being the unquestioning victim of the blame for its notorious elevation of appetite.
There are many such spots across urban and rural Malawi estimated to host no less than the 20,000 commercial sex workers understood to be in active service in Malawi. These numbers could be higher when one accounts for commercial sex workers who have more sophisticated networks beyond the dark open road or the bar.
Over the past four decades Malawi has grappled with AIDS, sex work has become spotlighted for its high potential to spread the HIV, which, in some way, acknowledges the fact that sexual services are not only a real social issue but also that they are pervasive. It has also shone light on its cruelty too. Instances where children have been thrown into sex work have not been uncommon, as this story sadly shows. Young people also parade the other side of the trade where young men are known to patronize commercial sex workers. It’s sex workers, in this inspiring story, who are working hard to keep young men away from soliciting sex from the market. Another story also highlights the essential role that sex workers are playing in Malawi in dealing with the youth problem.
It’s sobering that Malawi, like many countries, outlaws sex work for wanting to uphold the country’s moral values. After all, our Vision 2020 brands the country as a God-fearing nation. The reality, however, is that our men patronize this industry as an important source of relief in one too many times of need. And among us, there are many revered members of our society who we know can’t avoid this niche market. This creates a need to critically debate the co-existence of a nation alongside a trade that has existed since time immemorial and continues to thrive with no signs of waning.
We think it’s necessary to start with some basic issues hidden in the way we use language whenever we make references to the ‘women of the night’. Sex work and promiscuity are different. In the former, an individual establishes the terms of engagement in which they will render services for a fee in order to support a livelihood. In the latter, no livelihood beyond the cooling of a burning nudge needs sustenance. It’s where we need to offer the indulgent a prayer; they need the supplication of someone and deliverance from the Almighty. Even more, they may be considered psychotically sick for not being able to survive on one partner alone, but on many. Deliverance needed, no questions asked. Making such a distinction is really critical for its prowess to reveal just how many men can consequently be called prostitutes, an identity that has never really caught up with them in spite of their machinations.
In sex work, however, more than supplication to the Almighty or a shrink on speed dial is needed.
Before stories from Bwandilo started hinting on the fact that young males have also started lining the street for female customers as women begin to rise to newly known cravings, sex work has been known to be dominated by females. But in a 21st Century Malawi where homosexuality is suspected to now be a thing, male sex workers may be a phenomenon that supports the homosexual segment of our society as well, a phenomenon more known in other parts of the world. Regardless, the sighting of a male sex worker will continue to be a spectacle for decades to come.
But for female sex workers who always make the most obvious sample for anyone aiming to understand sex work, it’s questions of objectification, protection or whether their remuneration is adequate to sustain a decent standard of living that should be the first things we look at before ruling them out on account of social injustice or iniquity. Our incriminating denial of commercial sex work might be itself the source of much trepidation in the economic and health spheres, which is bound to hurt more Malawians in the long term. At this website, we strongly vouch for full recognition of commercial sex work as work first that, like other types of work, one can voluntarily enter or be subject to certain societal conditions that must regulate the exercise of such choice in order to participate.
Our country’s poverty profile and a corresponding tight labour market, for example, have forced many people into teaching or bank telling when they are more qualified and could have attracted better pay and livelihood if they operated in labour markets that could absorb their expertise. The same conditions apply in the monetized sex industry. We believe, as a matter of fact, that in a hypothetical Malawi, where everyone was well-off and living a decent life (hypothetically, if some invisible hand were to put everyone on a decent salary and inoculated all from HIV infection), sex with multiple partners would still exist among us as a sport, something one enjoys, or simply the social problem called promiscuity. So, in order to stop looking at commercial sex work as an exploitative industry per se, we should examine the question of choice being central to the participation in the industry as a worker.
Recognition for commercial sex workers will allow for more formal protections, including from Policemen who are heard of sexually harassing sex workers all too frequently. We believe it’s better to be protected and dignified even in an industry where one never made a choice to participate…including as people work their way out towards more suitable choices of work. This should be soothing to advocates against commercial sex workers even when they believe engagement is driven by economic vulnerability. But vulnerability is a questionable notion itself, as taking it wholesomely overshadows the fact that there are some individuals who take on the trade out of choice.
It is true that sex work is not a job like any other, as Valérie Pelletier opines. Yet the chance that the exchange of sex can occur where market demand and supply intersect is usually overridden in a world where a man has access to a coercive agent called money, believed to make him occupy a very powerful position in the acquisition of sexual services.
But we live in a more complex world. The United Nations, the global standard setter on whose ideals many developing countries like Malawi depend, has a position on this important matter: no position.