Independence buys freedom
Is sex work the only job for the undocumented migrant woman?

[Pic by Human Rights Watch]

Is sex work the only job for the undocumented migrant woman?

11 November 2020

Zimbabwean-born Kethiwe Mbali lost her parents in 2009 when she was 19 years old. Now aged 31, and a single mother Mbali escaped the shackles of poverty in Zimbabwe and now lives and works in Gaborone – as a sex worker.

by Mosidi Mokaeya

But now Covid-19 has dealt a heavy blow to the work she thought was her salvation as clients are steering clear of sex workers and her earnings have fallen substantially.

For the past 11 years she has explored many ways of making a living.  However, with her “illegal” status there are few job and business opportunities for her in Botswana.

She said that when she tried domestic work her employer did not pay her but repeatedly raped her.

Mbali said she did well at O level’s but did not have the means to study further. She heard on the grapevine that things were better in Gaborone and crossed from Zimbabwe without a passport soon after high school.  

“A group of us walked through the night from 7pm until 3am along the border fence,” she recounted. “We finally managed to jump the four meter fence and carried on walking until we reached Tutume. We asked for water to drink from a man who opened the door to us. That was my first encounter with my employer. He seemed like a nice person so the others left me with him.”

The chance encounter scored her a job as a child minder. “The man picked me out of a group of women. He told me I stood out because I was young and he had been looking for someone to look after his child in Ramotswa. He asked me if I could remain behind and start work immediately,” she said.

Mbali was to look after his child and blind mother while he remained in Tutume with his wife. “He promised to pay me P150 (USD15) per month. I was in the job for two years and I was never paid the money I was promised. Instead he would leave his wife in Tutume, arrive in Ramotswa where he would pull me into his bedroom and rape me. His mother was old and blind, she could not help me.”

Asked why she did not report the rapes to the police, she said: “The only time I went to the police was when I was fed up with the abuse and just wanted to be deported. I told them that I had been working for a family that owed me two years’ wages. At first the family said they did not know me but after long consultation with the police they admitted not paying me,” she said.

Mbali said her ex employer gave her P600 (USD60) for the two years she had worked. “I took the money and the police deported me straight away. I was relieved; it felt like I had finally escaped the nightmare. It was a chance to start over.”

It did not take long for Mbali’s wages to run out in Bulawayo. Aged 22 and Desperate for work in 2012, Mbali made her way back to Gaborone where she was introduced to sex work. For a while it sustained her and her son. “I never needed to send money home as I live with my son in Gaborone and my parents are late,” she pointed out. She said she was introduced to sex work by fellow migrant women who have been at it for longer than her. “They introduced me to the streets of Gaborone, showing me the corners to hang around for clients. I mostly service truckers as they make overnight stops around Gaborone,” she revealed.  She added that they pay decent money and always return for more. “I charge anything from P70 (USD7) a round to P500 (USD50). My full package which includes one round, a blow job and a Swedish massage is the most expensive and lasts one hour. Always a hit with the long distance truckers,” she noted. 

The pandemic has however dealt a heavy blow to the work she thought was her salvation. Clients are now steering clear of sex workers and police are closely monitoring the truckers. She explained that her earnings have fallen significantly due to Corona virus outbreak. “Before Covid 19 I could earn close to P10 000.00 (USD1000) a month. Since the pandemic the most I have made is P1200.00 (USD120) a month,” she stated.

Mbali said it is difficult for her to pay rent; it milks P2500.00 (USD250.00) from her monthly. “I’m barely making it and I worry mostly about my son. I need to keep him in school,” she said.

“I know my line of work is not accepted by society but I’m able to make ends meet. I’m 31 and a mother. My job has given us a better life than we can get back home. Although I’ve been forced to explore other avenues of making money, I have no plans of returning to Zimbabwe. I will lay low and avoid getting into trouble with the police so that they do not cost me a night in the streets.” She added “I will continue to scrape whatever I can and hope these corona days pass. Thankfully I have a tuck-shop to supplement the little I get from sex work.”

Mbali is a street vendor by day and plans to further her studies. “My son is at school during the day. I have time on my hands so I’m saving money for an online study. 

“Since the outbreak of Covid 19 I’ve seen very few clients. I’ve realized that my days as a sex worker are numbered. The longer the pandemic lasts, the less money we make, as clients are cautious not to have much contact with us and police have their eyes peeled,” she said.


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