Keeping sex workers safe in the Caribbean

Althea is a qualified HIV counsellor and rapid tester. She is also a former dancer and since leaving the entertainment industry she has worked with the Caribbean HIV/AIDS (CHAA) in Antigua to reach out to migrant sex workers. She provides counselling for sex workers. “They look forward to seeing me on a weekly basis”, says Althea. “Sex workers sometimes can’t always afford condoms so I ensure condoms and lubricants are always there.”

Female sex workers in the Caribbean are particularly vulnerable to HIV. Thankfully community animators like Althea are working to make a difference to the lives of these women, helping them to stay safe and healthy.

© Gideon Mendel for the Alliance

“Being broke can make you do desperate things, like having sex without condoms for a high price.”

— Althea

Risks and sex work

“For young women sex workers it is important to know that someone is there that you can relate your problems to and that they will be able to help you to come up with a decision,” says Althea. She gathered a group of women for a training session where they could ask her all the questions they wanted to about HIV. In designing the course she did not just want to provide them with information and help them cope with their immediate problems. She wanted to help them build self-esteem, identify some life goals and build the skills they need to achieve these.

After dispelling some myths and misconceptions about HIV, the group identified the problems they encounter in their day-to-day work. The main issues were personal safety in clubs, fear of violent clients, and clients who refuse to use condoms or try to remove them during sex.The women identified possible solutions to help reduce these risks, and keep each other safe. They included peer support, sharing information about ‘problem clients’ who had either been violent or refused to pay in the past, and finding ‘danger words’ or codes which they could use among themselves when checking in on each other.

Saving for the future

The women then discussed their personal goals, such as going back to school or building their own businesses. Althea supported these plans with a practical session on life skills such as budgeting. She explained how this was important as, “being broke can make you do desperate things, like having sex without condoms for a high price.” As an impact of the training the women have all started saving for the future.

The workshop was a great success and Althea is now running regular sessions. CHAA are also replicating the model in other locations. It is proof that women can work together to reduce their own vulnerability to HIV.