Along the highway that winds to Livingstone, sex workers are cruising. They are converging on the town from all points within Zambia and from across the borders, heading for the hoped-for rich pickings to come from the delegates, staff and others in town for the UN indaba on tourism later in the month.

Already, as night falls in Livingstone, the girls teetering on high heels totter down the street in their mini-skirts with their jackets slipping provocatively off their shoulders. Perhaps they are on their way to a hotel for an appointment that nobody is supposed to know about – especially not the client’s wife.

According to Kwenuha, a faith based non-governmental organization that seeks to rehabilitate streetwalkers, Livingstone has become a “hot-spot” of sexual activity because of the pending United Nations World Tourism Conference (UNWTO) general assembly.

Evidence of this is there in the tourism capital that has seen a burgeoning of adult entertainment and night clubs that present themselves as classy, up-market establishments, promising young women a life of luxury and relative financial freedom.

A Catholic nun, Perpetua Mtonga who is in charge of Kwenuha said sex workers registered with the NGO number about 500. She explained that Livingstone being a tourist town ladies take advantage of that. “With this UNWTO there are so many sex workers who have come into Livingstone. In fact many are already here from all parts of Zambia. We’re worried and are trying to find how best we can help.”

Chief Mukuni of the Leya people in Kazungula District is not too impressed either. Although he welcomes UNWTO, he says it “comes with a lot of negative effects. The unfortunate part as you may be aware throughout Zambia HIV prevalence in Livingstone is higher. I only hope that the influx of people coming into Livingstone will not actually increase the prevalence further.”

“We must sensitize our people to be very careful. For the sex workers, for everybody they must probably go for safe sex. They must use a condom if they cannot abstain.”

Catherine Malata is a sex worker who normally plies her trade in Lusaka. She relocated to Livingstone a month ago to tap into the sex market there. “I am here because that is where the money is,” she said after a little hesitation when asked why she was there.

There is a common perception that streetwalkers are trashy, wig wearing, and vile mouthed. Not so with Ms Malata, anyway, she is the opposite of that. As she stands outside East Point going about her business, she appears every bit the normal law abiding citizen shivering in her mini-skirt and skimpy top in the cold of a winter night in Livingstone. Whatever money she makes goes to support two of her children who are in the village with their grandmother. ‘There are moments when you’re lucky you meet a tourist who would pay you in dollars and lodge you in a hotel.”

Catherine Malata’s tales of dinners in classy hotels and wearing designer dresses may make up for the downside of being a sex worker, but most of the women have to live a double life. She is always on the streets in the night, and the fact is that being a sex worker does haunt her. “It is hard telling someone that you’re a sex worker but I have no choice as it is the only way I can make money.”   

The high and increasing number of sex workers in Livingstone is only compounding an existing trend. Livingstone, being a border town and Zambia’s tourist capital is a transit point for people connecting to and from neighbouring countries, and from further afield as well. This makes the town fertile ground for the trade in sex to thrive.  

“Livingstone being a border town, it is a transit point for sex workers. Some are coming from Zimbabwe; others are coming from Lusaka and Copperbelt,” explained Mr Samuel Maliko a health worker at Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Clinic in Dambwa. “The problem is quite vast so it is difficult to deal with.”

Sr Mtonga of Kwenuha said “Sex work here is more of survival. If they don’t go out it means they will die.”

Some people are worried that the influx of people in Livingstone because of the UNWTO has put a strain on already overstretched medical facilities. However, a senior source at Livingstone General Hospital said they’re on top of things. “For us as a hospital we are ready for everybody. There are enough drugs, there are no shortages.”

It is the allure of good life and money that often entices women into the world of sex work, and it is an occupation that is frequently glamourised. Sex workers are generally able to support themselves, often for the first time in their lives, and some of them make what appears to be a good living from the job. Jane Mubita, a 31-year-old reformed sex worker said she was driven into the trade because of lack of money or family support. She was once married and has two children before she broke up with her husband decided to become a sex worker in order to support her children.

“When you are at the border in Kazungula, you have enough money with the track drivers. They make sure they ask you how much you pay your rentals, what type of food you would like them to buy for you and also ‘ration’ money. Roughly sometimes you could make about K 700 when you come home.

But then she adds: “No one I know ever got rich from sex.”

Sex workers face the risk of being abused and there is lack of police protection, which can lead to feelings of hopelessness. However, sex workers often do not seek counseling because it is difficult to access due to the stigma attached to sex work. So alcohol and drugs are often used as coping mechanism instead.

“Sometimes someone would just use you and not give you anything,” said Ms Mubita. “Some men would just embarrass you like that or maybe torn your clothes but you are in that work. You are not even feeling shy. Tomorrow you would go back to proceed with your work.”

Then there are health risks. Angela Nawa, a 42-year-old reformed sex worker professes that she never used to use protection every time she had sex with men. She was not proactive about her health and didn’t have the vast knowledge about sexually transmitted diseases.

“Some men wanted to have sex without a condom while others insisted on using protection,” said Ms Nawa who is now HIV positive and receiving support from Kwenuha.

The women are all too aware of the risks involved in their work, yet they choose to stay for different reasons. Some say they chose this business because they could not get a job to support themselves and their children, others claimed they had no one to support their siblings after the death of their parents, a few “boastfully” said they are in it for fun.

Mukendwa Malinde, who works for Kwenuha (a Lozi word meaning change), says behavior change is not easy. “It takes a lot of time because there are a lot of things you have to put in place to make sure that one stays away. And what we have come to discover is that it (sex work) becomes more like addictive behavior.”

Sr Mtonga said “Our role as a women’s association is to rehabilitate and empower sex workers. To empower them in such a way that we meet their financial needs and provide them with survival skills.”

The organization uses programmes such as “night watch” and sport to change sex workers. “We used to go out in the night through our night watch programme to meet the sex workers and educate them about the dangers of engaging in sex work,” explained Mr. Malinde. “We also use sport as a tool to make the ladies active during day time so that at night they’re tired and can’t go out and that has worked.”

But during the UNWTO meeting Kwenuha and organizations like it will need extra resources to support the needs of dozens of sex workers who have camped there for the event.

Please note that the names of all the sex workers and reformed sex workers have been changed at their request.

See this and many other insteresting stories in the August issue of the Bulletin and Record Magazine - Zambia's best selling Magazine