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Tasintha sets Zambia's sex workers on a better path

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Constance decided to join the organization, and through it, learned how to tailor and bead necklaces. She also found solace in the organization’s weekly spiritual seminars, in which pastors read from the Bible and ask attendees to share their experiences. Most recently, Tasintha has supported her seeking a degree in information technology.

Like most women with whom Tasintha works, Constance did not stop her sex work immediately. “I won’t lie, I didn’t change the first day I came to Tasintha,” she admitted. “If I met an old client, sometimes I would go with him.”

There were some economic considerations to her decisions. “It takes six months to know tailoring,” Constance says, and during that process, she was not earning much money from her craft. By contrast, she could earn up to 500,000 kwacha ($90) a night as a sex worker, which enabled her to live well in Lusaka.

Tasintha insists that sex workers must continue living in their neighborhoods during the difficult change process. “If you take someone away to a retreat, they could revert to sex work when they return,” Ms. Phiri says. Tasintha instead asks its beneficiaries to stand up to the inevitable heckling from their neighbors and emerge more wholly transformed.

Tasintha has, over the last 20 years, learned a lot about how sex work functions in Zambia.

“We believe sex work in Africa is poverty driven,” Phiri says. Girls enter the trade as young as 12. Some are trafficked, but more often, they enter sex work to earn money for themselves or their families. Many have sad backgrounds – impoverished families, abuse, abandonment, or being orphaned at an early age. Janet, another Tasintha beneficiary, spoke of growing up with an abusive uncle who refused to give her as much food as his biological children.

Unlike many parts of the world, “pimps” are not central to sex work in Zambia. Most sex workers develop their client bases independently or through peers. As a result, peer groups can be crucial to one’s decision to leave the business. Janet started to think about getting out of sex work when she saw her friends dying of HIV and being murdered by clients.

“I was scared, but didn’t know where to turn,” she says. “I tried going to the church, but the pastor would scold me. I needed to be nurtured.”

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