COVID-19 IMPACT: An Interview with Dudu Dlamini about HIV-affected sex workers

In a recent post, the Coalition interviewed Miriam, our young mother Ambassador, about the impacts of the COVID-19 epidemic on her family. Today, we are sharing our conversation with another Coalition Ambassador, Dudu Dlamini, who the National Organizer of the Sisonke project, a movement of sex workers in South Africa and Mothers for the Future, which supports mothers who do sex work by providing a safe place to meet, organize, and access support as well build skills and share knowledge. Both are initiatives of SWEAT (the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force)Dudu also won the inaugural Prudence Mabele Prize, given out at the AIDS 2018 conference.

The children of key populations are a highly vulnerable group.[i] They include not only the children of sex workers, but also those of people who use drugs, transgender people, gay men and other men who have sex with men. These vulnerable children and adolescents face stigma associated with both HIV and their broader status in society. They are left out of health, social, and economic development interventions.  The cumulative impacts of social distancing and economic hardship caused by the COVID-19 response will exacerbate these inequalities[ii] as Dudu explains below.

First and foremost, how are you? What is life like for you during the lock down?

Just working from home. Zoom, Zoom, Zoom. It’s very busy in the Zoom street! I am trying to connect via WhatsApp to understand the challenges that are affecting sex workers in the hard time of the virus.

Can you describe what life is like for sex workers during this crisis?

It is a disaster for them. They are not generating any income. They were not able to make another plan for generating income. They couldn’t respond to the situation at all. So, it is a real challenge to support their families, pay their debts, and pay their rent.

During the lockdown, prices went up so sex workers aren’t able to afford to buy things. And they can’t work at all. They are not able to get transportation to fetch their medications. They are not able to support their children. Because Mothers for the Future doesn’t have offices, it is a challenge to get donations for clothes for them. WhatsApp is the only way to coordinate.

What type of help are you able to provide?

Through Mothers for the Future, we are helping to support sex worker mothers during this crisis.  We are giving them groceries and clothes, paying for their electricity, and getting medication and toiletries for their children. A few of their children need to take HIV medication. Since it’s lock down, I am not sure that they are taking it. We have a peer educator trying to find out what medication they still have. But before they can take the medication, they have to eat first. We try to have groceries, but now they are running out. They are really struggling with food, transport, and medication. Since the lock down, it is harder to put things together. The last time I was able to go out to deliver food and nappies was the day before the lock down started.

Mothers for the Future is also trying to train people to use PPE (personal protective equipment) so that they can do home visits and see what the real gaps are. But, since the lockdown, we can’t do home visits at all.

I am trying by all means to make sure sex workers are not going out. I refer them to SWEAT, which developed a donation page on its website. But it’s for a one-time voucher of 300 rand and that is not enough to depend on. Some say, “Tomorrow, I am going out. I’d rather die.”

How is social distancing impacting sex workers and their ability to earn an income and provide for their children?

For mothers, the thing that is most difficult is that they are not generating any income. Mothers for the Future is looking anywhere for donations to buy food, toiletries, and formula. A lot of mothers who have previously given back to the group don’t have anything to give now.

Pregnant sex workers can’t go to their home province to give birth and have nowhere to stay. Some are staying in shelters which cost 35 to 40 rand a day and they don’t have money to pay. They end up being homeless.

What worries you the most when you think about HIV positive sex workers and their children right now?

I worry about mothers taking their medication on time. Before COVID-19, we could do follow ups after Mothers for the Future group meetings. Now we can’t. I am worried that I can’t reach them to make sure they take medication or that they have transportation to go and fetch their medication. When the lock down is finished, there will be a lot of people who default on their medication. There will also be children who default. That is really worrying me. I don’t know where to start to help. It’s not easy to tell mothers to take medication when they don’t even have cash to go and get it.

If you could tell governments and international decision makers how to best support sex workers affected by HIV during the COVID crisis, what would you say?

If we decriminalized sex work before COVID 19, maybe sex workers would have been recognized in labor laws. Maybe we would have had a proper response; sex workers would have had savings just as any other workers do. But because this wasn’t done, now we are here.

Even when the government announced all the budget and plans to combat COVID-19, there was none for sex workers. But if it was decriminalized, they would be able to apply for UIF (Unemployment Insurance Fund). The government is providing for people selling tomatoes, farm workers, domestic workers — all the other informal workers. They were supposed to include sex workers. And what about the children of sex workers who are HIV affected? They didn’t even put them in their plan.

Now it is time for decision makers in government to decriminalize sex workers. They must be able to benefit from the same things that all other workers do.


[i] The Coalition for Children Affected by AIDS (2017) Making the Children of Key Populations a Priority
[ii] UNAIDS (2020)