Tasintha sets Zambia's sex workers on a better path

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

Sarika Bansal
A Tasintha member models a necklace she created. Tasintha helps young women in Zambia learn trades from tailoring and catering to jewelrymaking, giving them a way out of the sex trade.

“I never thought I would become the woman I am today,” says Constance, as she slowly beaded a necklace. “I was a bad character before.”

Constance (a pseudonym), aged 24, speaks matter-of-factly about her teenage years as a sex worker on the streets of Lusaka, Zambia. She entered the world through peer pressure and remained in it for several years. “I would see four, sometimes five clients a day,” she says. “It’s difficult unless you also do some drugs.”

Soon after Constance’s 18th birthday, in 2006, a representative from Tasintha visited the street where she would often pick up clients. Tasintha, which means “deep transformation” in the Chewa language, is a nonprofit organization that helps prostitutes reform their lives. The organization started in 1992 with the hope of curbing the HIV pandemic. Since then, it has touched the lives of more than 6,000 sex workers in four locations in Zambia.

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The first step in Tasintha’s approach is recruitment. Volunteers – many of whom are reformed sex workers – visit the bars and streets where sex workers
often line up for clients on weekend nights.

Conversations start casually. “We don’t tell the girls that we don’t like what they are doing,” says Clotilda Phiri, the organization’s coordinator. “And you usually have to go back several times. Some of them can be quite nasty. Over time, some will start to tell you that they’re not happy.”

When Tasintha first approached Constance, she was skeptical but intrigued.Several days later, she decided to visit the office to find out more. She learned that Tasintha offers psychological counseling, spiritual healing, educational support, and practical trainings in a range of income-generating activities. International donors, including The Global Fund, provide anti-retroviral drugs to women living with HIV.

Constance decided to join the organization, and through it, learned how to tailor and bead necklaces. She also found solace in the organization’s weekly spiritual seminars, in which pastors read from the Bible and ask attendees to share their experiences. Most recently, Tasintha has supported her seeking a degree in information technology.

Like most women with whom Tasintha works, Constance did not stop her sex work immediately. “I won’t lie, I didn’t change the first day I came to Tasintha,” she admitted. “If I met an old client, sometimes I would go with him.”

There were some economic considerations to her decisions. “It takes six months to know tailoring,” Constance says, and during that process, she was not earning much money from her craft. By contrast, she could earn up to 500,000 kwacha ($90) a night as a sex worker, which enabled her to live well in Lusaka.

Tasintha insists that sex workers must continue living in their neighborhoods during the difficult change process. “If you take someone away to a retreat, they could revert to sex work when they return,” Ms. Phiri says. Tasintha instead asks its beneficiaries to stand up to the inevitable heckling from their neighbors and emerge more wholly transformed.

Tasintha has, over the last 20 years, learned a lot about how sex work functions in Zambia.

“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.

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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