Melinda Willis

Melinda Willis (TAMPEP, Turin): At the time of her fellowship, Melinda was studying for a Master’s degree at the Fletcher School, Tufts University. She was the 2004-2005 co-editor of Praxis, the Fletcher Journal of International Development.

Night Work

09 Jul

This week I went out with the mobile street unit. At 10:30pm, I met up with Laura, a member of the TAMPEP staff, and Precious, one of the Nigerian cultural mediators, at the TAMPEP office to prepare the materials we would be handing out to the sex workers. The materials included brochures on STDs, handling dangerous clients, accessing health care without residency documentation, condoms and lubricant. I was pretty relieved to find out that we wouldn’t be discussing the possibility of denouncing their traffickers on the street. TAMPEP saves that for a safer time and place.

With the materials in hand, the three of us hopped in the Fiat minivan and drove to a major stretch of road that remained busy for the entire 3 hours we spent doing outreach. Whenever we spotted a sex worker, Laura pulled the van over a few feet away and we would walk over to introduce ourselves. Some were familiar faces and chatted easily with Laura and Precious as the latter tried to collect some basic information.

The ages provided ranged from 19 – 24, but the truth is they all added on a few years. After each encounter, Laura drove the van a little further down the street and wrote down the basics, including their name and age, whether they had seen a doctor or reported violent clients and noting whether each was a new encounter.

The reactions to the encounters ranged from hostility to gratitude. But only one told us very bluntly to “give her what we had to give her and go away.” To be honest, I expected more responses like that – we weren’t great for business. We spoke with 12 sex workers that night, but there were others we missed as they drove off with clients before we had a chance to speak with them. We also skipped all of the non-African sex workers, since TAMPEP approaches them with a different cultural mediator on another night during the week. Yet even as I couldn’t believe how many sex workers we saw, I was told we were out on a slow night.

It was nothing and everything like what I had expected at the same time. It was a starkly realistic approach to the business that is prostitution. Condoms were handed out – it was explained – not to support them in their work, but to help them stay safe if that is what they were going to (felt they had to) do. They were told to use a condom no matter how much money a client offered them not to. Looking into the faces of the very young girls we met that night, I hoped they would truly understand that their health was not negotiable.

Posted By Melinda Willis

Posted Jul 9th, 2004

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