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About one in seven residents of Madagascar’s main port city
of Toamasina are sex workers.

In less than 20 years, the number of registered sex workers in the city of
about 200,000 residents has climbed from 17,000 in 1993 to 29,000 in 2012. The
increase has been driven by rising poverty levels as well as the city’s
proximity to the recently opened Ambatovy nickel mine.

Construction of the mine, coupled with recent improvements to the port, saw an
influx of thousands of foreign workers. The billion-dollar investments also
resulted in an escalation in living costs and the collapse of traditional
commercial activities like the collection and sale of cloves and coffee,
pushing more young women into sex work.


“Girls come from the countryside to work as maids. Then, when they have a
problem with their employer, other girls from their region introduce them to
prostitution,” Germaine Razafindravao, the president of the local sex worker
collective FIVEMITO (‘Fikambanaina Vehivavy Miavotena Toamasina’ or Women’s Future),
told IRIN.

Toamasina’s growing number of sex workers is part of a nationwide trend, one
attributed to an increase in poverty since the onset of a drawn-out political
crisis in 2009, when twice-elected president Marc Ravalomanana was deposed by
Andry Rajoelina with the backing of the army. More than three quarters of the
Malagasy population now live on less than US$1 a day, according to government
figures, up from 68 percent before the crisis.


A means to survive 

 “Prostitution has become a normal phenomenon in Madagascar… Now sex has become
a product, a means to survive,” said Ratsarazaka Solomandresy, who is
responsible for the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) youth programmes
in Madagascar.

''Prostitution has become
a normal phenomenon in Madagascar…Now sex has become a product, a means to
survive''
Sex work is legal in Madagascar, and although HIV/AIDS prevalence
is low compared to other southern African countries – with about 0.2 percent of
people between the ages of 15 and 49 living with the virus, according to UNAIDS
– the incidence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like syphilis is well
above regional norms. According to government figures, 4 percent of pregnant
women are infected with syphilis, as are 12 percent of female sex workers.

Until six years ago, Antsohihy, the capital of the northern Sofia region, was
cut off from the rest of the country, but the 2006 rehabilitation of a road to
the capital Antananarivo has reopened the area to commerce, including sex work.

Although the number of sex workers in Antsohihy is unknown, “There are new
faces at the bus stops almost every day,” Solomandresy said.

Nadine, 15, quit primary school in 2011 and left her home village of
Befandriana, about 50km away, to join her 18-year-old sister in Antsohihy. Both
girls are now sex workers.

Nadine earns $15 for each client and said, even given the opportunity, she
would not return to school. Even though she has been engaged in this work for
over a year, no one has told her she is too young for it. “I’m not scared of
the police. They are my clients also,” she told IRIN.


Access to services and protection 
In recent years, commune governments have established an identity card system
for sex workers, providing them with specialized health care and legal
protections.

Angela, 30, from Antsohihy, turned to sex work after a divorce left her a
single parent to two children. She told IRIN she was applying for the ID card.
“I have a friend who already has a card. When one of her clients refused to pay
and hit her in the face, she went to the court and sued him. She ended up
receiving more money than the original amount they had agreed upon.”

The cards are only distributed to those who apply for them and only if they are
over the age of 18. While this system appears to be providing some protections
to sex workers in Antsohihy, it was unsuccessful in Toamasina. Sex worker
organisations claim the police harassed sex workers lacking the cards, which
were meant to serve as access to benefits rather than a license to work.

“Police used the system to abuse the sex workers. If they found a prostitute
without an ID, they would take her to the bureau and mistreat her there. So we
have now replaced the official cards with unofficial red books,” Razafindravao
of FIVEMITO told IRIN.

The red books give sex workers access to a judicial clinic in the neighbouring
town of Mahambo, a tourist destination. “Often men come to Toamasina and take a
girl to Mahambo. Once they arrive there, they see another girl they like more,
and they leave the first one on the street, without any money or way to go back
home. So we had to set up a centre there to negotiate with the clients and help
the girls.”

The association also runs discussion groups with the police in a bid to reduce
prejudice. “We tell them that these women do a job, just like the [police]
officers do,” said Razafindravao.

As with the official registration cards, only sex workers above the age of 18
are eligible for the red books. Engaging in sex work is illegal for girls under
18, though it does not prevent them from doing it.

A 2007 survey by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Toamasina and the island of Nosy
Be found that between 30 and 50 percent of female sex workers were
younger than 18.

“Employees of the nearby mining project come down to Toamasina for the weekend.
They look for young girls, as they are willing to do everything for little
money,” Razafindravao told IRIN. A hotel frequented by underage sex workers was
closed by the authorities in 2011.


No alternative 
FIVEMITO used to run a vocational training centre for sex workers that enabled
them to leave the streets, but the centre was closed due to lack of donor
funding. “Our courses really helped. The girls would study and get a
certificate to work in the tourism industry as a waitress or receptionist in a
hotel. With their salary and tips, they would make enough money,” said
Razafindravao.

Now the association visits families to convince parents to
keep their daughters from sex work. “I tell them about all the health
consequences that early pregnancies and STDs will have on their children. But
the problem is that I don’t have a solution. I can talk, but there’s no
alternative,” said Razafindravao.

To combat STIs and prevent HIV/AIDS from gaining a firmer foothold in the
country, UNFPA distributes condoms and advice to sex workers, especially in
poorer neighbourhoods. “These women hardly make any money, so they won’t be
able to buy condoms,” said Solomandresy.

In Antsohihy, the local NGO Vilavila takes the condom-usage message to the bars
that sex workers frequent, a campaign that has reached Angela.

“Using a condom has become part of the negotiation process now,” she told IRIN.
“Some of the clients refuse, and then I use a female condom, as I don’t want to
become pregnant again.” 

Source: IRIN

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