Dancer/sex worker goes back to school

FOR 12 years, she has been sliding down poles at more than 10 exotic clubs in Jamaica. She has danced herself into the arms of more men than she cares to admit, all in a bid to earn funds to care for her children and herself.

But all the sliding and sale of sex may soon come to an end for this 36-year-old woman. For the past three months, she has been exchanging her dancing shoes and sexy clothing for books and pens as she works to fulfil her dream of becoming a housekeeper in one of the hotels in Montego Bay. Four days per week, she attends classes at one of the HEART institutes where she studies housekeeping. The other three days she is back to sliding down poles and servicing her clients at clubs as far away as Kingston.

The dancer says she has wanted to leave sex work for years now, but was never able to do so. Through Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL), she is now getting that opportunity.

“I would love to leave the dancing and work in the hotel industry,” she says. “JASL has done so much for me. I never knew I would get the opportunity and I am very thankful.”

In 1997, jobless, penniless and with a five-year-old child to feed, she was desperate to earn some fast cash. She followed a friend who was already engaged in sex work to her club and from then on she has been dancing her way through clubs around the island.

Through funding from the Caribbean HIV and AIDS Alliance, JASL conducted fortnightly visits to clubs where they talk to sex workers about safer sex and HIV prevention. They distribute condoms, pamphlets on safer sex and HIV and conduct HIV tests. They also do referrals to their clinic.

But outside of the mass distribution of condoms, pamphlets, talks and the testing, in discussions with sex workers, JASL found that these were not enough to promote lasting behaviour change. The organisation noted that in order to be more effective, greater emphasis needed to be placed on life skills programmes with an emphasis on personal development and life-long planning.

The dancer was in the right place at the right time, as not only did she get information on safer sex, she was also guided on her possible options. She chose to go back to school so she can eventually leave the sex industry. Her discussion with JASL staff regarding her desire led the institution to seek monetary assistance to help her to quit sex work and get into the formal tourism sector as a housekeeper.

“If it wasn’t for JASL, I wouldn’t be doing this programme. They encourage me. The teaching from JASL is very different, I enjoy it more,” she says. “It is just how they treat you. They make you feel like family. I used to have unprotected sex, but now I don’t. I use condoms all the time.”

The dancer is one of more than 1,000 sex workers reached under a one-year Caribbean HIV and AIDS Alliance-funded project to reduce risk of contracting HIV among informal tourism workers and to disseminate information on safer sex and HIV. The project targeted the resort towns of Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril.

“The situation in these areas is that they are prime tourism areas, especially Negril, and a lot of sex work goes on in these areas,” says project manager Devon Cammock. “We wanted to sensitise the staff at two hotels in Negril — Couples Negril and Couples Swept Away — about HIV and to do testing among the sex workers to reduce their risk of infection.”

Among the other key activities conducted by the JASL among sex workers were:

* Peer education training;

* Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) training for sex workers and hotel staff; and

* VCT outreach among sex workers, including beach boys.

Over the lifetime of the project, almost 35,000 male condoms and 396 female condoms were distributed to informal tourism workers, including sex workers, beach boys and craft vendors. In addition, the NGO conducted more than 474 HIV tests among the same workers.

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