Tasintha sets Zambia's sex workers on a better path
“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.
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.