MyChamp: Activist uniting sex workers to stand up for their rights in Mozambique

MyChamp: Activist uniting sex workers to stand up for their rights in Mozambique

Champions for sex workers’ rights are key in protecting human rights. To celebrate their work, we sat down with La Santa –the Coordinator of the National Platform for the Rights of Sex Workers in Mozambique. La Santa is at the forefront of educating police and healthcare workers about sex worker rights and the provisions of equal services to all.

Years ago, I went with my friend, who was also a trans sex worker, to Durban because I needed money to support my family. I found a man there and he said, ‘You will never do this work again because you’ve found me’. He paid me for my services, but I was only allowed to be his. The language barrier was difficult, he was keeping me in one room, he didn’t want me to call my friends or my family… he was keeping me in a kind of prison. He became possessive. I stayed with him for a year until I ran away and came back to Mozambique. When I came back, I was very skinny. My friends looked at me and said, ‘La Santa, this isn’t you, you must go check what is wrong with you’. I went to the clinic and went for a check-up and was told I have HIV. I was friends with someone at the clinic and she was the one who told me the news. She started crying when she told me, but I wasn’t crying. I said I wanted to start medication that same day because I said I want to live! I got it from the man in Durban. He was the only one I ever had unprotected sex with because I thought he was going to be my life partner.

 

Sex workers now know that if someone discriminates against them, they can report them. They know that they also deserve respect, and that they are safe.

La Santa

Advancing the rights of other trans sex workers and men who have sex with men

I had been doing sex work for about two years and I was getting good clients, nice clients, but in my mind, I was thinking that I was just doing this for money, not because I wanted to do it. I got a job at LAMBDA (a Mozambique-based LGBT rights organisation) where I worked with LGBT and trans communities educating them about how to protect themselves against HIV, and how to care for themselves. I left there in 2018 when Pathfinder called me one day and said they want a trans person to work to advance the rights of other trans sex workers and men who have sex with men.

I am the coordinator of the National Platform for the Rights of Sex Workers in Mozambique. This is a platform to talk about, educate and learn about rights of sex workers, including trans sex workers.

Educating sex workers to report violence

We taught sex workers that even though sex work is criminalised, they can still report violence. Before, they were scared to go to the police to report violence. They were discriminated against by many police officers for being trans and were told, ‘They beat you because you lied about being a woman, I can’t help you’. Some health workers do the same thing. They say, ‘Why are you like this?’, and they go call someone else to come look at you.

We educate the police and tell them, ‘Sex workers are people like you, like anyone, and they deserve respect’. We spend a lot of time and money educating police and health care providers. We also worked together to create a code of conduct for all public service workers: for the police, health workers, and for the community in general. Sex workers now know that if someone discriminates against them, they can report them. They know that they also deserve respect, and that they are safe.

Working with civil society to support sex workers

Hands Off is important because it allows us to support other organisations that work on human rights for sex workers. It also helps to work with focal points who are sex workers who support their peers. There are about 28 focal points and without them, there would be no connection with all the sex workers out there. The focal point is the first person a sex worker calls if there is a problem. An example of how close the focal point is to sex workers is how some of them will take the car registration of the person who picks up a sex worker, just for safety. They give out condoms and they gave out care baskets during Covid, for example.

Sex workers have to be included in the fight for human rights, because we are all human. In a way, we are all sex workers, and we are all fighting for the same thing, we all want the same thing. We all want human rights.

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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