Change is About the Layers of Women’s Lives

Sarah

In the safe spaces that JASS Southern Africa creates, Malawian women have found growing confidence to tell their own stories, even when these concern taboos. While a great many women are involved in transactional or survival sex, the power of stigma prevents them from being open about it. Gradually, however, this too is changing. Sarah (not her real name) bravely shares her story with us in her own words.

I had known my husband’s temper when we got married. He’d sworn he could control it, and he actually had—for a while. However once in a while he would forget to control himself and hit me hard. I had run away from him many times, but he was very good at bringing me back. On this fateful night, he hit me so badly that I lost four teeth; he terrorized, wounded, traumatized and tortured me. He hit me because I had gone to a local clinic and tested HIV positive. He claimed that I was sleeping around and hence my status. I married at the age of 16 and never had sex with any other man. Surely he knew that.

I ran away, and ran and ran until I saw stars floating in front of my eyes, expecting at any second to be hit from the back by either him or a car. I ran until I couldn’t—until my legs twisted under me.

Where should I go? I chose to face the indignity of seeking shelter at my parents’ home, even though I was unwelcome there. They had made it clear that no matter what happened I was to stay in my marriage. My brothers feared I would share their small piece of land and so they made my life miserable. I tried to be as invisible. I lowered my glance as I walked by any of them.

One day, I gathered the courage to go to an organization that works in our area on issues of HIV and AIDS but the officials received me with prejudice and condescension. I did not go back. I packed my bags and went to town to stay with a friend. It’s this friend who introduced me to the world of sex work. I was forced by my condition into sex work. With limited education, I had limited survival choices.

Sex work requires major changes especially when one is plain, submissive and naive. With the help of some of the veterans, I recreated myself by buying some sexy short dresses, high heeled and extremely uncomfortable shoes, and make-up. Then I went out on the street. It was hard, I was embarrassed, but I did it. Later on I joined a sex-work support group. We started sharing information and supported each other in demanding the use of condoms as we did not want to be re-infected. I continued to feel really bad and decided to go to church, but there was such vigorous attack on ‘evil’ women like me, I left.

Having stayed with friends for four months, I found a lover with his own place, a male sex worker. He took me in. I was so afraid of losing him that every little cent I worked for, I gave it to him.

After attending the first JASS meeting where we all shared stories about our lives, I realized that I was not getting out of the poverty trap because I was taking care of a man at the expense of saving my money. I vowed to move out of his home and within two months, using the “power within,” I left him. I was able to save a little money and with that I bought a sewing machine and increased my income.

That is how I crossed the line of my inferiority complex and dependency on men. I am now a member of an HIV support group for sex workers. Through JASS workshops, I know I am a feminist, and my body is my own. That is what I tell my sex-worker friends. My future plans include buying a plot of land back home, building a small house and supporting rural sex workers to learn to stand on their own feet.