MyChamp: Religious leader opening doors for Zimbabwean sex workers

A religious leader giving in a speech to an audience in a church
Last updated on: 20 February 2024

Champions for sex workers’ rights are key in protecting human rights. To celebrate the work of allies to sex workers, we interviewed Paul Juru – a Church Elder in the Assemblies of God Church and Religious Champion for the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with and Affected by HIV and AIDS (INERELA+). He is one of the key members of the movement to welcome sex workers to the church.

I can talk about the Hands Off project in my sleep. It’s the most unique and positive project I know that has done so much in communities and I am seeing the effects here in Zimbabwe. With Hands Off, we went into uncharted waters. No one had ever thought of venturing into the space of sex work because of stereotypes and our cultural beliefs. But then someone came and said, ‘No, let’s come together and talk about sex work’. Hands Off shared their resources with INERELA+ and together we worked to produce a manual for religious leaders for how to engage sex workers. Religious leaders are challenged by this manual. They are told they are the holiest beings in the world, and they are now being asked to interact with the ‘sinners’. When you go into the church, you are looked at by people who think you are promoting sin in the church and this is an abomination because sex workers are regarded as evil doers, people who should never exist, people who are condemned to hell. There is a lot of pulpit violence against sex workers, a lot of brutal, verbal, attacks against them, but we are working to reduce that. What you need is an attitude change and I’ve seen some pastors shedding tears when you bring the concrete realities of sex workers’ lives to them and show them these are also people who were made in the image of God, they are good people, you cannot discriminate against them. It made us, as religious leaders, stop and think about what the background of sex work is.

By protecting their rights, we are creating a more equitable society. By ignoring them, we are creating injustice.

Improving relations between sex workers, policy, the judiciary and religious leaders

At INERELA+, we do awareness campaigns with religious leaders about sex workers’ rights; with whole churches; with members of parliament, with women’s groups, and with sex workers themselves. We tell the sex workers they are special and welcome in the church.

We also take sex workers to the police to get them to share their experiences about being abused by the police and discriminated against. The sex workers talk about their experiences of being looked down on by the police and told they are stealing peoples’ husbands. Because of cultural beliefs, sex workers are judged but the men who pay for services from sex workers are not judged. They are accepted. This is because of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity. The status of men is elevated above women, and we need to deconstruct these masculinities.

This work improved relations between sex workers, police and the judiciary, and religious leaders and, helped to reduce gender-based violence against sex workers.
Opening the church doors: a platform for acceptance of sex work in Zimbabwe
We also work with the Centre for Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Research in partnership with the Ministry of Health and other non-governmental organisations to support sex workers accessing clinical services for free. Us religious leaders have a toolkit which we use to teach sex workers about safer sex practices and services available to them and we also refer them to local clinics. Many sex workers don’t go to these clinics, though, because they are discriminated against there. So, we teach the clinic workers to accept sex workers and not discriminate against them.

This work opened doors into churches and gave churches a practical way of showing love. It created platforms for talks, dialogues and discussions and made huge strides in making sex work a recognised profession in Zimbabwe. I can show you some photos where these religious leaders are hugging sex workers and actually asking for forgiveness for how they have treated them. I even used to be a very traditional person with a ‘holier than thou’ attitude but because of Hands Off I started seeing things differently and I repented. I am an example of someone who has been transformed by this project.

Educating people to protect sex worker rights & creating a more equitable society

The main outcome of this work is that we end up having an empowered sex worker who knows her rights and it has even helped in the formation of a sex worker movement advocating for sex worker rights. This work educates people to know sex workers are human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. They have the same rights as everyone else and they need protection and the right to work under just and favourable conditions. Sex workers face many human rights abuses because of stigma and harmful laws and policies. In countries like Zimbabwe, where sex work is criminalised, it makes sex workers even more vulnerable to being denied critical services. But if we ignore sex worker rights, there won’t be social justice. By protecting their rights, we are creating a more equitable society. By ignoring them, we are creating injustice.

Hands Off programme

Hands Off, an Aidsfonds programme, works directly with sex worker-led groups, police, religious leaders, service providers and NGOs to reduce violence against sex workers in Southern Africa. This story story sheds light on one of the champions of change who work to break down societal barriers to sex workers’ rights. By sharing their stories, Hands Off aims to encourage everyone to stand up for the rights of sex workers. Because human rights are for all. We would like to thank North Star Alliance in Zimbabwe for its assistance in facilitating this interview.

The programme is funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Mozambique.


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