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Nhamoinesu Mseyamwa, WINDHOEK, Apr 6 (IPS) - "Everything revolves around money and without work there is no money," says 33-year-old Maria Xoagub*, a mother of three who earns her living as a prostitute. "Sometimes we try stopping going to sell our bodies in the streets, but when poverty takes over we are back there."
Xoagub?s story is one heard frequently from Namibia?s sex workers. In a country where the unemployment rate hovers around 30 percent, prospects of getting a job outside prostitution are slim for sex workers, many of whom are illiterate. According to the 2005 ?Human Development Report?, produced by the United Nations Development Programme, about 35 percent of the country's 1.8 million people live below the poverty line of one U.S. dollar a day.
There is also a dearth of projects run by government and civic groups to help prostitutes make the transition to another life.
Veronica de Klerk of Women's Action for Development (WAD), a non-governmental organisation based in the capital of Windhoek, believes that skills training provides sex workers who lack qualifications with their only alternative for generating income. WAD has already experimented with initiatives to train women in needlework skills in southern Namibia, she adds ? noting that more such projects are needed.
"The government is not looking at them (prostitutes) as human beings that have been sent into the streets by poverty. It should look at them as mothers who need assistance to get off the streets," says de Klerk. "It is not by choice that they are on the streets."
Observes Xoagub, "The government should come up with projects for us. The government is our only hope...We (prostitutes) are also voters."
Authorities appear some way from prioritising the needs of sex workers, however. In fact, it has yet to take account of the main civic group dealing with prostitutes in Namibia, Stand Together.
Situated in Windhoek's oldest black residential area, Katutura, Stand Together strives to help sex workers off the streets by providing them with clothing, food and support, says its founder ? Herman Klein-Hitpass, a Roman Catholic priest. The group assists both women and street children who have turned to prostitution.
Last month, the organisation used the local media to accuse government of failing to assist it in efforts to help sex workers.
This prompted the deputy minister of health and social services, Petrina Haingura, to visit the premises of Stand Together, during which she denied having earlier knowledge of the group ? even though it has been in existence for a decade.
"I am just here to listen to your concerns and take back the message to the government," Haingura said. "I am not promising anything, but what makes me happy is that you want out of the streets."
The chairperson of the Women's Parliamentary Caucus, Lucia Basson, also said she was unaware of Stand Together, or any other organisation caring for sex workers. This is despite the fact that last year, Basson's caucus was tasked by parliament to investigate the plight of street children and sex workers, and come up with recommendations as to how they could access health care.
However, Basson said her committee had met with most women's rights organisations and the Legal Assistance Centre, a donor-funded organisation headquartered in Windhoek which has called for decriminalisation of prostitution.
"Legalising prostitution is one of the recommendations we will take to parliament," she noted, although no date has been set for such recommendations to be tabled.
For Hitpas Herman, the actions of government and donors reveal a general disregard for sex workers. "It?s just out of contempt that no assistance is being rendered," he says.
Sam Nujoma, Namibia?s former president and first post-independence leader, is on record as taking a tough stance on the matter of prostitution. "The Republic of Namibia does not allow prostitution, homosexuality (or) lesbianism here," he said during a speech given at the University of Namibia six years ago. "The Police must arrest, imprison and deport homosexuals and lesbians found in Namibia."
At present, Hitpas-Herman keeps Stand Together operating with donations from Catholic parishes in Germany. Just under 1,000 U.S. dollars are needed for food alone every week, an amount he struggles to raise.
Phillip Strydom, secretary general of the Council of Churches in Namibia, an umbrella body for protestant churches, admits that churches ? in their turn -- have also not been working with prostitutes.
"The truth is, they (sex workers) don't like what they are doing," he told IPS. "But, the guilt they experience makes it difficult for them to approach us for help."
In the absence of concerted efforts to assist sex workers , however, they will remain vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
"Sometimes we are raped, pushed out of cars without being paid and beaten up by the same people that sleep with us," said Xoagub, who belongs to Stand Together. "No one would want to put herself through that, but if you have to feed your families you have to forget about that."
Hitpas-Herman also cites the case of Juanita Mabula, a sex worker who was beheaded in September last year. To date, the case remains unresolved.
In addition, AIDS presents a continual threat. According to the latest figures from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, the adult HIV prevalence rate in Namibia stands at 21.3 percent.
IPS could not obtain statistics as to how many sex workers there are in Namibia. With the membership of Stand Together put at 1,200, however, Klein-Hitpas estimates that there must be thousands.
"The clinics need money to dispense medicines; the churches need money to baptise their children; schools want money for kids to attend school and the yards where they erect zinc shelters also need money to accommodate them ? all this pointing to a jigsaw puzzle linked together by money," he says.
"Of course, the government has the capacity to lighten their plight."
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However, the number of documented cases of underage prostitutes is rising in the United States each year.
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