Swag Champions: ‘Give Us A Voice And We Will Do It Ourselves'

Sex workers in Mashava have faced stigma and discrimination as their work is considered unacceptable by the community; many religious groups believe sex work is a sin and against the law of God. As a result, sex workers are viewed as a disgrace to society and these attitudes are shared by service providers. Consequently, sex workers face challenges in accessing sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services and rights. When they do gather the courage to access SRH services for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), they are asked to bring their partners. This acts as a barrier to their accessing treatment as – since they have multiple sex partners – tracing their STI contact is difficult.

The unavailability of SRH services at the hospital in Mashava, which serves only company employees, exacerbates the problem as the only alternative hospital is in Masvingo, 40km away, where clients have to pay for consultation and medication. 

With funding from Aids Fonds, SAfAIDS partnered with BHASO to implement a PITCH project targeting sex workers in Mashava. Fifty sex workers were identified and trained to become sex workers’ advocacy group (SWAG) champions and were empowered with information on SRH and rights. To ensure the champions are able to voice their concerns they were also trained in lobbying and advocacy skills. Now, having being given a voice, the SWAG champions are taking the lead in applying social mobilisation interventions.

The Mashava SWAG champions demonstrate the success of the PITCH project; they have proven that the statement, ‘Give us a voice, and we will do it ourselves’ is a reality. After training, they embarked on a journey that has transformed both themselves and their larger community. The SWAG champions have mobilised other sex workers, making sure to reach out to all the mines in the area, as well as a neighbouring farming area. They have created demand for services, and to ensure that these are accessible to all sex workers, have linked up with other stakeholders, namely Population Services International (PSI) and the Centre for Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Research Zimbabwe (CeSHHAR).

They have mobilised sex workers, single mothers and young women, to whom they have given SRHR information. Information dissemination and open communication during community dialogues have been used to voice the concerns of sex workers and garner community support and acceptance. The dialogues have also enabled community members to raise their issues about the behaviours of sex workers that have made them lose respect in the eyes of society, including that sex workers are said to be rude and use offensive language, which community members dislike. These open dialogues betweeen sex workers and community members have worked to improve perceptions and attitudes towards each other.