Results of a study conducted by the Center for Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Research (CeSHHAR) indicates that the stigmatization and discrimination of commercial sex workers at some hospitals and clinics in Zimbabwe is hampering their access to increased HIV/AIDS treatment and care.
Presenting the study findings during a Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Right’s health forum for journalists, CeSHHAR programs director, Sibongile Mtetwa, said stigmatization and discrimination are some of the major barriers to health access by sex workers in the country.
She said the study dubbed ‘Sisters With A Voice’, and conducted since 2009, revealed rampant stigmatization and discrimination in health care centers is discouraging some sex workers from seeking health care, particularly in public health institutions.
In some instances, she said, sex workers were being described as prostitutes and accused of spreading HIV/AIDS by health workers.
She added that sex workers told CeSHHAR researchers that because of public humiliation, they were now hesitant to seek medical attention.
Mtetwa said sex workers were also being abused by their clients with the police not doing much to help. Female police officers, alleged Mtetwa, dismiss their sex workers’ reports and accuse them of spreading HIV/AIDS, also deterring the sex workers from approaching health institutions to access critical treatment, care and support services.
Other key findings of the study were that of the 52,214 people who visited CeSHHAR clinics since 2009, at least 26,090 had been treated for sexually transmitted diseases and 20 percent had tested HIV positive.
The report also established that sex work is common in Zimbabwe with 20 percent of the women surveyed having started selling sex before they turned 20 years of age.
Mtetwa said CeSHHAR and its partners are stepping up efforts to train health care workers so they are friendly to commercial sex workers to increase their access to treatment, treatment literacy and psycho-social support.
The National AIDS Council’s key populations co-coordinator, Tendai Mhaka, said NAC has been supporting the establishment of an association of sex workers, adding that it will allow them to discuss issues of concern.
Experts say the failure to include sex workers in HIV prevention and care programs will derail Harare’s efforts to achieve its goal of zero new infections, zero deaths and zero stigma.
The “Sisters With a Voice” program provides a range of sexual and reproductive health services, including HIV testing and counseling. It also provides legal advice.