ROUNDING UP HOKERS IN MALAWI


Sam Mchombo

It

is a matter of fact that AIDS has taken its toll on human life, with various

African countries amongst the worst hit. It has also placed incredible economic

burdens on most of those countries which, given the soaring costs of available

drugs, find their budgets increasingly strained. In May when the president of

South Africa, Thabo Mbeki visited the US, interest centered around his purported

overtures to critics of HIV as the cause of AIDS. Responding to a question

during an appearance in San Francisco, President Mbeki pointed out that there

was need for re-evaluation of the approach to AIDS especially in light of the

exorbitant prices of the available drugs which, in South Africa, required that

the whole entire budget for the Ministry of Health be devoted entirely to AIDS

treatment. Clearly the issue of the costs for AIDS treatment have pre-occupied

some African countries, especially in the absence of real efforts towards the

alleviation of those hardships. In April the Malawi Ambassador to the US, Mr.

Tony Kandiero, in private conversation, expressed consternation at the lack of

constructive suggestions from representatives of the World Bank who, in

discussions about AIDS treatment and the need for assistance in the procurement

of drugs, continually advised about the use of preventive measures as the best

weapon. Yes, prevention is certainly required and may be the best option, but it

did little to restore the health of those who had already succumbed to it, who

also constituted the most productive segment of the society.

Certainly,

the ambassador’s consternation was justified given the grim figures of AIDS

casualties in his country. Last month it was reported on Malawi media that over

the past few years 52,000 teachers have been lost. That figure is nothing short

of calamitous, yet it only reflects casualties from one profession. When the

losses from other sectors, such as the police, health workers, the military,

agricultural sector, the civil service, etc, to say nothing of ordinary

citizens, are factored in, the picture that emerges is simply horrific. Yet

there are no prospects of treatment of those people who, even under the best of

circumstances, couldn’t afford the medication anyway. While the issue of AIDS

treatment or ways of combating it in the Third World countries makes its run

through the usual political-cum-economic discourse and review, some countries

have resorted to other tactics. Prevention and AIDS awareness and education are

certainly required but the AIDS issue has provided a backdrop for some measures

that are controversial. Over the past few months the President of Malawi, Bakili

Muluzi, ordered the removal of prostitutes from the towns, getting them thrown

into jail. The move was bound to be controversial and it was. While the climate

created by the preoccupation with AIDS may have turned out to be propitious for

such a strategy, essentially making the women so branded scapegoats for the

spread of the disease, it was a move that drew immediate criticism from the

local human rights organization. For a start, the President’s move must be

separated from the larger issue of AIDS. It is one thing to ‘purge’ society of

‘undesirable’ elements, but it is a totally different thing to invoke the need

to combat AIDS as the justification. Assuming that there are individuals who can

be appropriately characterized as prostitutes, the reality is that in Malawi

they also appear to be the most sensitized to the use of condoms. A waiter at a

Safari Lodge in Nkhotakota, Malawi, Ernest Duka, commenting on whether condoms

should be given to women by the health clinics, to pass on to their spouses,

remarked that men would be put off by that. Rather, the condoms should be given

to and carried by men. The issue was that women who carried condoms were viewed

as prostitutes. Ironic in that if women who carry condoms are prostitutes, in a

sense the said prostitutes must be really tuned in to the most publicized means

of fighting the spread of the disease. In some countries, e.g., Eritria, the

so-called prostitutes are required to undergo regular check-up for sexually

transmitted diseases and HIV. The real issue over which the Muluzi government

was criticized was that it sought to penalize some women over what was

essentially an economic problem. The women in the streets were in search of a

means of livelihood. This would be attainable if the government were to

articulate economic policies and initiate economic programs that would make that

occupation or pursuit unnecessary. Under the circumstances, the failure of some

of the economic policies and the economic stagnation are being used to victimize

a small and vulnerable segment of the society, which also constitutes a soft

target.

Beyond

that there is the perennial problem of determining who is a prostitute. This is

where criticisms of the decree brought out issues of human rights in general,

and women’s rights in particular. As democratic values increasingly gain ground,

regardless of whether there are coherent characterizations of democracy or

democratic practice independent of the dictates of the West, with provisions for

women’s rights and human rights in general, the forcible removal of hookers has

had consequences on the status of women. Prostitutes are determined in part by

such superficial things as their outfit, or by their spirit of independence,

always willing and ready to socialize in any place, such as bars, usually

male-dominated, but gatherings protected by provisions of freedom of assembly,

and in part by their independence of not requiring males to accompany them.

Unfortunately, the decree has meant that women need to be accompanied by males

for them to have any measure of respect, especially in public social places.

This has resulted in many women being confronted by the police or security

guards for walking into a hotel, to the reception desk, or appearing in some

other public place without male company, in clear violation of certain basic

rights. The removal and incarceration of hookers in Malawi was still in progress

last month. When asked about it by the local media, and how he would fend off

the criticisms leveled at him, President Muluzi simply replied that the country

had a right to remove prostitutes from the streets and he meant to see to it

that it was done. He didn’t indicate whether there were any laws that the women

had broken, implying that there may be none.

 

 

 

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