This article is a rejoinder to an article from Eric’s Diary titled: “The rising incidence of HIV/AIDS infections and the street hawking of sex.” In the said article, Eric bemoans the significant spike in HIV/AIDS infections in Ghana and calls for decisive measures to be taken to stem the boom of sex trade – which he labels as one of the major causes of the spread.

In this rejoinder, I make a case for sex workers and the sex trade industry and advocate for its legalization and regulation instead of an intensification of the enforcement of the laws that already criminalise sex work in Ghana, as a means to controlling and in fact, reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

In recent times, there has been a rather significant increase in sex workers in the country as Eric alludes to. In my area, Nungua, for instance, many years ago, there was only one notable red light district, Abrefi, on the Nungua-Spintex road.

After years of being the hotspot of entertainment, Ghana happened and it collapsed. From its ashes arose Italian Boy, and recently Liquid Pub, who have now become the centre of nightlife and consequently the new red light districts in the area.

On a night stroll from Kantamanto junction to Nungua Methodist junction, you will find them, in all shapes and sizes, clad in skintight neon coloured clothes that leave very little to the imagination, selling their ‘fleshy’ wares, negotiating fees and calling would-be clients – all you have to do is stare for too long and you’d be surrounded by heavily perfumed bodies each staking a claim to a piece of your night.

While the jury is out on whether or not they’re a good addition to the Nungua ecosystem, to me it doesn’t matter. They support the local economy there and many Nungua provision shop owners are able to feed their families thanks to the patronage of these town helpers.

But then Eric says due to the fact that HIV/AIDS is being spread through unprotected sex and that sex workers – alongside men who have sex with men, transgender people, people who use drugs and people in prisons – form part of the key populations that are contributing to the surge, the trade must be stemmed.

“If it is truly the case that unprotected sex accounts for the highest number of infections, then officials of the Ghana Aids Commission, UNAIDS, the law enforcement agencies and other stakeholders need to evolve a strategy to stem the booming sex trade,” he said.

At this point I disagree.

The booming sex trade must not be stemmed. Police men should not be conducting swoops to clean our streets of them. And laws that criminalise them should fall like the walls of Jericho, rather than being reinforced.

Like Kofi Annan – a vocal advocate for all the members in the above key populations – once said “We need to be able to protect the most vulnerable, and if we are here to try and end the [HIV/AIDS] epidemic and fight the epidemic, we will not succeed by putting our head in the sand and pretending that these people do not exist or that they do not need help,” he said. “We need to help them and we need to resist any attempt to prevent us from recognizing the need for action and assistance to these people.”

The criminalization of sex work, and or the enforcement of the same, would in no way stop the spread of HIV/AIDS through that group, neither would it reduce it. Instead, the country will experience an even greater surge. Because like everything that is criminalized, a black market develops, and the added risk of getting caught even makes it more tantalizing for would-be clients to seek them out.

Forbidden fruit tastes sweetest.

Besides, the factors that push women into the sex trade i.e. sex trafficking, poverty, drug abuse, have in no way been eradicated from society.

With inflation high, cedi depreciating, economy shrinking and unemployment at an all-time high, opportunities available to the average Ghanaian are limited, for an immigrant its zero. Most of these town helpers are low-skilled immigrants and refugees from neighbouring countries with very little prospect.

So then when the laws are radically enforced, how are these women expected to fend for themselves?

Not to belabor the point, but even ‘middle income’ families are struggling during these harsh economic conditions, with talks of haircuts and marked-to-market investment banking, even female professionals, married women, would have no choice but to spread their legs for some butter at some point.

How much more poor women, single mothers, disabled people from underserved, marginalized communities? We might have to build new female prisons for the wave approaching.

Eric further calls for an intensification of education and sensitization among these key populations, he even goes further to emphasise “one-on-one engagements with the target audience.” It appears Eric is a stranger in Jerusalem.

Point blank, all the key populations are criminalized in Ghana, and there are even efforts to make the said criminalization even more draconian than they already are – the Anti-LGBTQ bill. So then I’m wondering, how does Eric expect the Ghana AIDS Commission to for instance, gather a bunch of men who have sex with men under a single roof to educate them on condom usage and HIV testing?

The last time a group of queer people gathered under one roof to discuss LGBTQ issues including promoting safe sex; they were rounded up and thrown into prison. And guess what, one of the key evidences used to prosecute them were packets of condoms and lubricants that had been distributed to them as part of the conference.

So now imagine putting sex workers under one roof … Let’s not forget Ghanaian sex workers do not work in brothels where groups could be reached at once for these sensitization projects, they walk alone. So how are you going to reach them exactly? Whiles they’re working? Hmm.

And finally, Eric advises the Ghana AIDS Commission not to waste any meager funds that may be allocated for the purpose on workshops and seminars in expensive hotels. I laugh kikikiki.

I have been to one of those workshops. It was held at the Mensvic Grand Hotel. It was very engaging, very educating, very enlightening. The Ghana AIDS Commission and partners had brought together some journalists to help rethink the HIV response in order to reach U=U (Undetectable=Untransmittable).

What this means is that people living with HIV would have to stay committed to taking their Anti-Retroviral drugs to make the HIV virus undetectable in their system. When that is achieved, the virus becomes untransmittable, meaning you could have sex without a condom and still not infect your partner with the virus.

While we were feted after the conference (it was well deserved. God knows the amount of brainstorming we had to do that day) not even a single condom was shared! An HIV conference without free condoms? That was my first. Imagine I had a sex appointment in that same hotel right after the conference; it would have been a ‘raw deal.’

They also didn’t share HIV self-testing kits, they only mentioned it.

Now why would I be going on and on about what they didn’t share? Eric points out that the Ghana AIDS Commission has been sponsoring events like the Hitz FM Old Skuls Reunion Party and TV3 Mentor XI to target the youth. But how exactly are they targeting the youth through these programmes? And have there been any measurable achievements? Do they share free condoms or free HIV self-testing kits?

So once again, this might be a ‘sponsorship’ in futility. To rephrase what Eric had to say, the Commission must not waste any meager funds on parties and programmes that will yield little to no results. And that advert on TV starring Ekow Smith-Asante … lol. We really need to try harder as a country.

But the Commission through their actions and inactions are partly to blame for the quandary they find themselves in. They haven’t pushed for laws that would help make their work easy, for instance calling for the legalization and regulation of sex work, and calling on the government to reject the Anti-LGBT bill.

They have also refused to work with NGOs such as LGBTRights Ghana and Rightify that could have given them the unfettered access to one of the key populations. By the end of December 2023, key populations would be much harder to reach and the disease will continue to spread.

But why legalise?

To explain my proposal, let’s go to Senegal where sex work has been legal since 1966.

According to PRB, the legislation supporting the legalization of sex work “aims to prevent soliciting in public, control STIs through regular mandatory medical tests, and prevent sex work by minors who are under the age of 21.”

“The legislation requires sex workers to register with their local STI clinic and obtain a special ID card. To maintain their legal status, sex workers must report every month to a special sex workers’ section of their local STI clinic where they are regularly tested for STIs and HIV.

“A woman who has an STI must relinquish her card until treatment is completed, a precaution that aims to keep her from working, since the police can arrest her for working without her card,” it added.

The result of this legislation is that it has significantly kept Senegal’s HIV rates very low. In fact, Senegal has one of the lowest HIV rates in Africa. The percentage of adults living with HIV in Senegal is 0.30%, while in Ghana it stands at 1.70%, according to the World Population Review.

It has also prevented many girls from being sex trafficked into the country. Because with the minimum age at 21 years, women who go to register at hospitals for their cards can be easily questioned to ascertain whether they are being forced into the trade by a pimp or not.

And finally, what this legalization does is that it gives sex workers’ associations’ legitimacy and recognition.

In Senegal, sex workers have AWA, their very own association. The association has been the point of contact for their local AIDS Commission and other international partners to reach and educate these sex workers on HIV/AIDS.

In fact, AWA has since 1993 been carrying out an ambitious AIDS awareness program in towns across Senegal.

PRB reports that, “Armed with educational brochures and wearing T-shirts with their stylish logo — a pair of hands with painted nails and bangles beating a pink tam-tam with “HIV” on the drumhead — the women have taken their message about AIDS prevention to the streets.

“In bars, nightclubs, brothels, and lorry parks (truck stops), they engage people in animated debates, persuading skeptics that AIDS really does exist and that condoms can prevent the virus. Passing around large, color photos of genitalia with obvious signs of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), they describe signs of the most common STIs and demonstrate correct condom use.”

If this isn’t what the Ghana AIDS Commission needs then I don’t know what else.

Also, let’s not forget that through a formal association like AWA, government could then effectively target sex workers for social interventions in order to alleviate their plight and pull them out of the trade. In Ghana, we could put them on LEAP, and register them on the National Health Insurance Scheme, while equipping them with much needed vocational skills etc.

So in conclusion, let’s legalise to save lives and to stop the spread. The criminalization won’t help, the police swoops won’t end it because in the end…[In Kim Kardashian’s voice] Na Ashawo dey reign…purrrrrr!

The author, Cornerlis Kweku Affre is a staff writer at Views expressed in this article do not reflect the position of his employers.

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