Given the choice, people preferred to pay for subsidized condoms in attractive packaging because it gave them greater social status, rather than using free condoms, an official in the northern Zambian town of Mpulungu told IRIN.
A high volume of traffic and a low cost of living has made Mpulungu, on Lake Tanganyika, Zambia’s only port, an attractive destination for sex workers.
Every two weeks, a ferry travels the length of the lake to Burundi and returns via Tanzania to Zambia, bringing traders, backpackers, overlanders and migrants, while the fishing industry draws businessmen and truckers from across the country and neighbouring states. Its broken streets are lined with bars that never seem to close.
Solomon Kaluba, an AIDS advisor and coordinator at the government’s National Aids Council in Mpulungu, told IRIN the HIV infection rate in the district was officially about 10.8 percent – slightly higher than the prevalence rate of 8 percent in Northern Province, where the town is situated – but still below the national infection rate of 14 percent.
However, unofficial estimates put prevalence in Mpulungu much higher.
Being a transit hub, Kaluba said, probably contributed to the level of HIV infection in the ramshackle northern town because many sex workers migrated there, especially from the copper and coal mining towns of Copperbelt Province after the global slowdown and the fall of commodity prices in 2008 impacted negatively on the country’s resource-based economy.
Free condoms are distributed at health clinics, guest houses and bars, but the subsidized condoms in attractive packaging, against the bland presentation of free condoms, are much more popular, even though they cost about 500 kwacha ($0.10) each.
Kaluba said the socially marketed condoms were preferred, as “sex is prestigious,” and the packaging and presentation added to the currency of such condoms.
“The clients I have are from outside [Mpulungu]. People talk too much and it’s a small town [of about 25,000], so I don’t really go with local men,” Miriam, 23, a sex worker from the capital, Lusaka, told IRIN.
“People look down on us. It is not our wish to do this, but I don’t feel bad. We do what we do and even married women go out and sleep with other men [for extra income]. We are proud, and we need to make money to live,” she said.
Unlike her two friends Christabelle, 27, and Charity 28, also sex workers, Miriam completed school but drifted into sex work after two or three years of unemployment. All three have boyfriends who travel from Ndola, Kabwe and Lusaka about once a month to spend a few days in Mpulungu. One is a truck driver and the other two are fish buyers.
“When they come here we’re good housewives, but when they are gone, we are not,” Miriam said. All three said they all used condoms – as “we care about our lives” – including with their boyfriends.
Most sex workers staked out their workplace. The women frequented a lakeside bar and if they ventured into other bars “we are chased out” by other sex workers, they told IRIN.
“[There] is money in Mpulungu and it’s cheap to live here, that is why we like it,” said Charity, who left school when she was 16 years old.
A two-room brick house, with electricity and a corrugated iron roof, can be rented for about 250,000 Zambian kwacha (US$53) a month, and Charity charges her clients between 200,000 kwacha (US$42) and 500,000 kwacha ($103). She averaged two or three clients a week and her boyfriend always brought her presents, such as furniture and electronic goods, when he visited.
Christabelle, originally from Kasama, about 200km south of Mpulungu, never had any schooling. She said girls as young as 12 years old became sex workers, and they encouraged them to use condoms.
Chalwe Mwaba, a Mpulungu community development officer, told IRIN many children were tempted to abandon schooling at a young age to earn money, the boys by becoming fishermen and the girls by going into sex work.