Thirty-three year old Zinenani Majawa has been a prostitute since she was twelve years old. Hers wasn't a venture by choice but rather by default.
She found herself in a position where she was to feed and pay school fees for two siblings after both her parents died leaving behind three destitute children, a girl and two boys. There was no one else to turn to.
Having to take care of two younger brothers is a challenge Zinenani will never forget because it forced her into prostitution for the survival and education of the brothers. True to her wish, the brothers managed to finish secondary school education and are now each comfortably independent in their separate homes.
Life as a prostitute was never easy as Zinenani was to discover, considering that she did not drink or smoke, essential habits that could make her easily blend with the rest of the people who patronised drinking joints.
Because she did not have money, she could hardly dress up to competition. She re¬calls at times being called bad names such as 'wachimidzi' literally translating to village girl.
She vividly recalls one night when she visited Lunzu drinking place where she spotted a decently dressed young man whom, in her mind, she thought he was a gentleman.
Little did she know that hiding behind the skin was a real wolf. They left for a lodging house and along the way the man attempted to hack her with a knife in an attempt to force her to surrender all her night's proceeds, fortunately for her, she managed to es¬cape.
At times, she says, police would round them up at night, take them to police and charge them with rogue and vagabond.
Along the way, says Zinenani, the police would take turns to have sex with them.
"When the police arrest us at night they rape us even without using condoms and the following morning we are taken to hospital where we get tested for HIV and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STIs). The results are given to us in full view of every one. No counsel, no privacy. No regard for our human rights. Very unfair!" said Zinenani over the weekend.
If one suffers from an sexually transmitted infection (STI) hospital personnel asks her to come with her partner so that they together get treatment. Because she has no real partner, she would be forced to reveal her real profession. This would attract an array of insults that would put her off from visiting the hospital next time she falls sick.
Seeking assistance from traditional medicine men has also proved to be a task too difficult to achieve for most of them (traditional medicine men) insist on taking the medicine themselves and to have sex with her later as a way of administering the treatment to her. Again discouraging her from coming back next time she needed cure.
After having managed to raise her two brothers she managed to buy land where she has built a house of her own.
Zinenani has been living with HIV for 17 years to date but her CD4 count is still at good levels so much that she hasn't started taking ARVs yet. She has taken it upon her¬self to protect her clients.
"I tell my clients about my HIV status whenever they want to have unprotected sex with me and if they insist because they think I look too healthy to be HIV positive then the whole deal collapses, no more sex with such clients because that way I also protect myself from increasing the viral load in my blood," she explains.
No one to date has managed to give Zinenani convincing reasons that can make her leave prostitution.
With all the hardships she has been experiencing as a prostitute, Zinenani and fellow prostitutes in Mwanza district decided to form an or-ganisation known as Umodzi Girls Group which is active in Mwanza and Zomba districts.
At the moment Umodzi Girls Group has projects with organisations such as Centre for the Development of People (Cedep), Centre for Human Resource and Rehabilitation (CHRR) and Pakachere.
She at the moment works as peer educator in the programmes being implemented by her organisation, Umodzi Girls Group but being fund¬ed by other institutions. She is still a prostitute but not to earn a living as it previously were but rather because that is the only thing she knows best.
"If I hook up a client today it is not because I want money but usually it is to satisfy my sexual feelings, after all I am only human and still not married," she concluded.
According to the laws of Malawi, living on proceeds from prostitution is illegal. The irony to the whole situation is that whenever the law enforcers, police, arrest prostitutes, instead of concentrating on things that would be in conformity with the law which they are trying to enforce, they become the first to rape the suspects, making the whole effort of arresting the suspects irrelevant.
Principal Secretary for Ministry of Gender and Child Development, Mary Shawa, said that HIV prevalence among prostitutes is at 70 per¬cent to 80 percent, saying is a scary figure.
According to her, efforts by government are underway to improve accessibility of health services by prostitutes.
She says within the ministry's Social Rehabilitation Centers, there is a wing where the prostitutes, when identified, are trained in business management skills and given capital for small scale businesses only that at the moment it is being done at lower scale.
"This project is at the moment pilot phase but we know that we can go bigger than that. In fact as a ministry we need to have a special pro-gramme on prostitutes which, can help wean them off their illegal trade," she said.