Madagascar: How sex workers are getting the short end of the stick

By Jaysim Hanspal
Posted on Friday, 8 October 2021 16:00

View from Ambola beach, Madagascar (Wikimedia Commons / vavaulegrandbleu@gmail.com)

Visitors flock to Madagascar for its pristine beaches, easy-going island life, and a certain segment come for its sex tourism. However, when the pandemic struck, the flow of tourists got hit, leaving many sex workers to fight a two fold battle: how to make a living and how to get medical care.

Despite the fact that living off the earnings of a sex worker or operating a brothel in the country is illegal, buying sex is not, which means most urban sex work takes place in streets, hotels and shantytowns.

According to the UNFPA’s National Plan for Adolescent and Youth Reproductive Health in Madagascar, 33% of Malagasy women experience violence in their lifetime. There are reports of domestic violence, rape and incest, sexual exploitation and pimping.

Travel restrictions have prevented foreigners from visiting the country, which means that many women who rely on sex work for income to support their families struggle to survive. “We are seeing more desperation among sex workers – they are lowering their prices and competing against each other,” says Timothy Irwin from UNICEF.

Sex tourism

For Nathan Stapley, director of Learn Achieve Become (L.A.B) – a UK-registered charity working with a non profit in Nosy Be island – sex tourism is something he regularly sees first hand, as many of his students’ parents engage in the trade.

“There is absolutely no chance that [sex workers] can earn as much money as they can from sex tourism”, he says, “They can earn a €100 in a week, […] that’s more than they could earn in a month.”

[…] sex workers have no access to protection so they have unprotected sex. […this year] we will see high rates of Covid-19, teenage pregnancies, and it’s [only] a matter of time before we discover a high number of HIV cases.”

In Nosy Be, prostitution is such a big part of the social fabric that 40% of young women have their first sexual experience within the context of prostitution.

Popular sex tourist sites like Nosy Be have experienced a particularly high number of Covid-19 cases. However, after international and domestic pressure to open the borders, Madagascar is expected to welcome tourists starting 31 October. Nevertheless, Nosy Be was meant to reopen to foreigners and inevitably sex tourists on 1 October, but that has since been delayed. 

“The borders have been closed for almost two years now, […] this has impacted them [prostitutes] negatively – they are not able to earn the same amount of money that they would have […],” says Stapley.

Online dark websites have revealed groups of men who are waiting for the opening of borders so that they can engage in sex tourism on the island.

One such site, International Sex Guide, has a thread dedicated to Madagascar, where users update each other on political affairs and how these will affect their sinister trips. One user writes: “The tourism industry is wiped out. […] Even back in 2015 I could lease a whole beachfront resort for $600 a month in Mangily.”

A second user, ‘SouthEaster’, says: “If it takes off with few/no restrictions I will be happy to jump on board.”

A third user, who shares a naked photo of a Malagasy woman, writes: “The president is busy getting his messed up act together. For us still a long way till we can enjoy this again.”

Vulnerable workers

The Covid-19 pandemic has put the lives of underage sex workers  at risk. A study by UNICEF shows that three-quarters of prostitutes hired by Malagasy men are under the age of consent, which is 14 in Madagascar. More families have resorted to marrying off their daughters at a younger age to alleviate the financial burden on their families.

The nature of sex work during the pandemic has also evidently increased the risk of exposure to Covid-19. However, as sexual health facilities have remained closed during lockdowns, sex workers cannot access free contraception and sexual health advice. As a result, they are at an even higher risk of sexually transmitted infections, says Justine Lungu, an advisor at SOS Children’s Villages.

“[…] sex workers have no access to protection so they have unprotected sex. […this year] we will see high rates of Covid-19, teenage pregnancies, and it’s [only] a matter of time before we discover a high number of HIV cases.”

Currently in Madagascar, 19,000 women aged 15 and over are living with HIV, a 159% increase from the figures reported in 2010.

Legislation? Control?

Stapley firmly believes that harsher punishments for offenders could deter underage prostitution in the area.

“I’d like to see more repercussions on those adults, whether [for the] Malagasy themselves or international [perpetrators]. Here, down the bar strip, you see a man, who is probably in his late 60s, with a girl who looks no older than 12, walking down the street hand-in-hand eating ice cream. You have to assume he bought her services,” he says.

For Lungu, this poses a significant risk for these women. “Once tourism [resumes], Madagascar opens itself up to more variants. The government needs a strong screening process, and they don’t have it.”

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