South Sudan: Sex Workers Call On Government to Promote Safer Sex With Army and Police

As a single mother of seven, Ajeng*, 35, was forced into sex work to support her children when she could find no other job.

In 2006, Ajeng discovered she was living with HIV and as a result her marriage broke down. Fortunately her children are healthy and living without the virus. In 2009, Ajeng, who is originally from Uganda, moved to Juba city, South Sudan in search of work as she could not find any in Uganda.

She was with her friend Arche*, 37, a single mother of five. The pair related how, since their husbands left them, they are in charge of their family's basic needs but life became so hard that they could not afford to provide for their children's school fees, medication, food, shelter and other personal needs.

Becoming a sex worker

In Juba, they did everything to look for a formal job but couldn't find anything and took up sex work following their friends' advice. They now both work in the old Custom market and are able to support their families' basic needs.

Arche is a widow who found out her HIV status before her first child was born; but her children are HIV negative.

In 2010, they joined the sex workers' group, they were introduced to the rest of the members and given guidance on the correct and consistent use of condoms before they started work. Arche and Ajeng explain that they face many challenges from their clients who are both civilians and army staff. Some clients reject the use of condoms during sex even though the pair disclose their HIV status.

Violence against sex workers

Arche and Ajeng also cited an example where a police officer raped a woman who is HIV positive. Ajeng said: "These people will all die if they don't lose their attitude of forceful unprotected sex." And the 'clients' aren't only putting themselves at risk, because after sleeping with the sex workers without protection, many go and have sex with their wives or their girlfriends, and sometimes even with young girls who are not able to negotiate protection.

Another issue Arche and Ajeng raise is how condoms should not be distributed to sex workers in open areas but through their network leaders because the police harass them when receiving the condoms.

But the work isn't all bad, they explain. Arche and Ajeng have some clients who are responsible and always ask for protection, and even leave without having sex if they don't have any condoms. They consider some of them as friends and some even like husbands.

Sex workers promote safer sex

Mindful of their HIV status, Arche and Ajeng visited the Juba Teaching Hospital to recruit people in the counselling team to try and target army personnel and the police because they are particularly at risk as many of them are their clients.

The sex workers' group has a social network all over Juba, with members from the neighboring countries of Uganda, Kenya, Congo, Ethiopia, as well as South Sudanese. It was formed to support its members in case they have problems with imprisonment, sickness or even death. Their motto is that they will never be buried in another land. If a problem is beyond the network's help, their leaders go to their embassies for further support.

Arche and Ajeng believe the government and non-governmental organizations should try their hardest to empower and raise awareness among citizens - both civilians and the army and police forces - about protecting themselves against HIV.

*(not their real names)

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