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Tasintha sets Zambia's sex workers on a better path

The nonprofit group Tasintha helps prostitutes reform their lives using a positive, nonjudgmental approach.

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“We believe sex work in Africa is poverty driven,” Phiri says. Girls enter the trade as young as 12. Some are trafficked, but more often, they enter sex work to earn money for themselves or their families. Many have sad backgrounds – impoverished families, abuse, abandonment, or being orphaned at an early age. Janet, another Tasintha beneficiary, spoke of growing up with an abusive uncle who refused to give her as much food as his biological children.

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Unlike many parts of the world, “pimps” are not central to sex work in Zambia. Most sex workers develop their client bases independently or through peers. As a result, peer groups can be crucial to one’s decision to leave the business. Janet started to think about getting out of sex work when she saw her friends dying of HIV and being murdered by clients.

“I was scared, but didn’t know where to turn,” she says. “I tried going to the church, but the pastor would scold me. I needed to be nurtured.”

Two years ago, the police rounded up a group of sex workers and left them at Tasintha. Janet found the organization to be far less judgmental of sex work than most of Zambian society, which is deeply Christian and moralistic. She appreciated the way Tasintha staff spoke to her – as a human, instead of a pariah.

Janet has since been working in tailoring and textile trading. She was also recently reunited with her daughter, who she had left on her mother’s doorstep 15 years prior, and got married earlier this year. “I don’t want to go back to my old life,” she said. “I’m too scared of contracting HIV.” 

For all its success stories, though, Tasintha has some important limitations. Most of its training programs – including tailoring, jewelry making, catering, brickmaking, and chicken keeping – are designed for women with limited education levels. Women with high school or university degrees can, Phiri laments, quickly become bored in these programs. Some of the income-generating activities are also less lucrative than sex work, especially if one finds clients at five-star hotels. Without viable alternatives to sex work, some potential beneficiaries leave the program altogether.

Tasintha also struggles with sex workers who want to stay in the business. They have a “safe sex program,” which distributes condoms to sex workers. It is especially active in Chirundu, a border town with Zimbabwe where demand for sex work is high. But it fits uncomfortably with the organization’s mission to help women leave sex work behind.

Still, the organization’s nonjudgmental approach has worked for many of its beneficiaries. Constance, for instance, sees a life ahead of her with endless possibilities. “Now I say no if I meet an old client,” she says. “Once you come out of that life, there’s no need to ever go back. The money in the streets wasn’t pure. I can make money so many other ways now.”

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