Jamaica Gleaner / Nadine Wilson, Staff Reporter She was stabbed in one of her lungs, was forced to jump from a moving car to save her life, has been imprisoned, was raped more times than she can recall, and has endured a lifetime of shame, but it wasn’t until a church group offered her the opportunity to go to school that 41-year-old Sharon decided to walk away from a life of prostitution.
It has been three years since the mother of two left the streets to better herself and, during that time, she has completed the HEART Trust/NTA level-one and level-two courses in housekeeping.
Today, she gets by with the earnings she receives from selling phonecards and snacks in her community, and remains optimistic that her feverish search for a full-time job will soon bear fruit.
But while things are slowly coming together for Sharon, she cannot help but notice that the number of commercial sex workers in Jamaica seems to be inching upwards.
She knows, too, based on her more than 20 years in the industry, that the back-to-school period is the time when many enter the profession, as the need to secure their children’s school supplies and pay fees usually trumps personal safety and pride for many single mothers.
Although it’s hard to give a true estimate of the female commercial sex worker population in Jamaica, because they are considered to be for the most part a hidden group, director for the National HIV Prevention programme, Marion Scott, said it is believed to be about 18,000 girls, or 2.5 per cent of the adult female population.
“It’s 10 times as much as back in the day when I just started out,” Sharon said.
“You have quite a few girls and they have good reason for being there, because I talk to them,” she asserted.
Sharon’s observation about the peak in this population during the back-to-school period has been confirmed by Scott.
Personnel from both the National Family Planning Board, under whose purview the HIV prevention programme falls, as well as officials from the Ministry of Health, generally visit the streets, clubs, massage parlours and entertainment venues on weekends to distribute condoms and safe-sex education to sex workers.
“A lot of them do sex work to support their children and, of course, back-to-school time is a big demand, and a lot of them are the sole breadwinners for their families, so I definitely will agree that there is a larger amount out during the back-to-school time,” Scott said.
With the start of another school term fast approaching, Sharon warns that the life of a sex worker is harsh, and now wishes that she had not entered the profession to begin with. Upon retrospection, however, she believes she did not have much of a choice because her father died when she was three and her mother was a drunkard.
Emotionally absent mother
At nine years old, she was sent to a children’s home, but then she was sent back home to live with her emotionally absent mother.
By 14 years old, she had her first pregnancy and abortion and, at 17 years old, was a single mother.
When the mother considered that she had to exchange sex with her child’s father in order to secure money to take care of their baby, the idea of having sex with a wider cross section of men for money did not seem so bad.
“To be honest, sometimes it was good, because you are coming from a community where you don’t get a lot of money and then you go to a society where, as you pass a man so, they want to pay you. So it was sort of exciting at first, but then when you get into it, it’s a bit challenging, because you find that men want to force you to do things that you don’t want to do,” she explained.
Sharon experienced her first near-death experience on the streets at 19 years old, when she was seven months pregnant with her son, who she conceived “while doing business”.
Feeling tired after a slow night, she decided to sleep on a stall, but was awakened by a man demanding sex.
When his request was turned down, the man pulled a knife and threatened her. In her quest to escape her attacker, Sharon ran through an opening she spotted in a nearby chain-link fence, but then a piece of the fence caught her clothes and derailed her escape. The man eventually caught up with her, but just about the same time she managed to free herself.
stabbed in the lungs
“I only felt when something cold jook me, but I still tore myself away from the fence and run, and when I was running and saying ‘help, help’, I feel something in my back, and when I feel, is pure blood. Is straight in my lungs the knife went,” she said.
Sharon recalls feeling breathless as she struggled to let her legs carry her body forward but, fortunately for her, a taxi man she knew spotted her and took her to the University Hospital of the West Indies for treatment.
She was later told by the doctors that the knife just barely missed her heart.
There was also the time when she had to struggle with a gunman who wanted her to have sex with him for free.
Eventually, she managed to wrest the gun from him and threw it into nearby bushes and made her escape while he searched for his gun.
“I had the gun in my hand and he was on the ground and him say ‘do, do, is not my gun, a mi father gun’, and I flung away the gun and run away leave him,” she said.
She said she was forced to jump from a moving car one night as a group of men carried her away at gunpoint to an undisclosed location.
“When you look on mi belly and my leg side, it rub off like a grater,” she said. “Mi bawl and say I am not going back on the road, mi done with the road, but when it heal and hungry take me again, mi have to hit back the streets because the money nuff out there,” she confessed.
Sharon, who was arrested and served one month in prison for loitering, said that among those meting out abuse to the girls on the streets are policemen who threaten them if they do not comply with demands for sex.
“Them always support the business too, because when they get pay, them come buy. But when they don’t have any money, them bad you up and say them a go lock you up and take it free,” she said.
Sharon said she had to tell her children about her lifestyle when they were younger because they would always get into fights with other children at school who would tease them that their mother is a “whore”.
“One day, I just sit the two of them down and tell them the truth and say ‘listen, you don’t need to fight other kids in school, because it is the truth’,” she said.
The mother said her life took a turn for the better in 2011, when she met members of the Joy Town Community Development Foundation during one of their social-intervention projects with sex workers.
Representatives from the group often visit the red-light districts and offer free HIV testing and counselling for sex workers. In addition to this, they also recruit girls to send them back to school and pay them a stipend to encourage them to stay.
More than 35 sex workers have been sent back to school under this project.
“More programmes like Joy Town can help, because the way how they come across to the street workers, they can reach people,” said Sharon, while noting that members of the group come across as being caring.
“Right now, I am so glad that I have found this programme to help me to open my eyes to the reality of the situation out there, because it is not safe out there,” she said.
Since completing her level-one and two courses, Sharon has attended several job interviews, but she is yet to be called back for a job. Despite this, she said she would never go back to her old profession.
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