Tensions between the role of motherhood and the role of sex worker

'If you have children, you have responsibilities': motherhood, sex work and HIV in southern Tanzania.

Beckham SW, Shembilu CR, Winch PJ, Beyrer C, Kerrigan DL. Cult Health Sex. 2014 Oct 1:1-15. [Epub ahead of print]

Many female sex workers begin sex work as mothers, or because they are mothers, and others seek childbearing. Motherhood may influence women's livelihoods as sex workers and their subsequent HIV risks. We used qualitative research methods (30 in-depth interviews and three focus group discussions) and employed Connell's theory of Gender and Power to explore the intersections between motherhood, sex work, and HIV-related risk. Participants were adult women who self-reported exchanging sex for money within the past month and worked in entertainment venues in southern Tanzania. Participants had two children on average, and two-thirds had children at home. Women situated their socially stigmatised work within their respectable identities as mothers caring for their children. Being mothers affected sex workers' negotiating power in complex manners, which led to both reported increases in HIV-related risk behaviours (accepting more clients, accepting more money for no condom, anal sex), and decreases in risk behaviours (using condoms, demanding condom use, testing for HIV). Sex workers/mothers were aware of risks at work, but with children to support, their choices were constrained. Future policies and programming should consider sex workers' financial and practical needs as mothers, including those related to their children such as school fees and childcare.

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 Editor’s notes: This important research sought to understand how sex workers negotiate this identity alongside their identity as mothers. Sex workers in sub-Saharan Africa have a greater risk of acquiring HIV than the general population. Many of these women are mothers. The authors conducted qualitative research with sex workers in southern Tanzania and using Cornell’s theory of Gender and Power as a theoretical frame, explored the intersections between motherhood, sex work and HIV related risk behaviours. This theory outlines four structures of gender: labour, power, emotional, and symbolic relations. Their analysis revealed three key themes. These included motherhood/respectability versus sex work/stigma; for the children; and motherhood/power, and HIV risk. The first theme highlights how for these women that motherhood denotes respect in contrast to the stigma evoked by sex work. Thus women often emphasised their role as mothers over that as sex workers. The second theme emphasised that for these women the ideal mother has the financial support of a husband and their role is to care for their children. However, as many of these women were unable to rely on partners, sex work enabled them to care for their children and ensure their well-being. The third theme, revealed a contradiction. Being a mother could either empower their role as a sex worker, drawing on this respectability and enabling them to negotiate higher payments from clients; or seeking higher payments for risky sexual acts such as anal sex or sex without a condom to ensure the well-being of their children. The authors conclude that in relation to Cornell’s theory these women are compromised in terms of labour both as mothers and as stigmatised sex workers and this is also related to lack of power in both of these areas. In emotional relations, women’s bond with their children is highly important and drove their need to earn money through sex work. Further, in terms of symbolic relations women used the role of motherhood to ensure their dignity and respect.

United Republic of Tanzania
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