Â We met her in the car park of a small shopping mall on the edge of Mbabane, Swaziland’s capital. She was too shy to get out of the car her friend had brought her in, too nervous of who might see, or what might be overheard.
She told us that she knew an isolated place where we could talk. Ten minutes later we are in scrubland standing by the rubble and remains of someone’s home.
Here Nelsie – not her real name – stops fiddling with her plastic necklace and starts looking me in the eye, but even that appears to take considerable effort. She tells me that for the last two years, since both her parents died in a car crash, she has lived on the periphery, isolated from her remaining family and society.
“Right now I don’t feel that I am a human being” she confesses. “Right now I am scared to greet my family because if I say that I am a prostitute all of the people will just say that I am a prostitute”.
She wants us to know that this was not her first choice; she did try to find work.
“Here in Swaziland there are no jobs” she says. The necklace fiddling starts again. “I have no choice to be a sex worker, whether I like it or not, I must do that”
Tucked away in one corner of Swaziland’s annual International Trade Fair we find the HIV/AIDS stands. It is an unusual addition at a trade fair but then so is the large number of children who have come here for a day out with their parents; there is barely a businessman or woman in sight.
These stands are testimony to a tragic accolade; Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV and AIDS in the world.
A staggering one in four people have HIV/AIDS in Swaziland.
At one stand Zelda Nhlabatsi, who runs theÂ Family Life Association of Swaziland, is trying to raise awareness about the disease. The free condoms on her table seem to have attracted quite a crowd.
Princesses of Swaziland- Reed Dance CeremonyÂ
Her organization offers support and education to sex workers and she believes there is a growing number of women, just like Nelsie, who are turning to prostitution because of the country’s financial woes.
“Everyone needs food, those are basic needs and the unemployment rate is quite high so sex work for most people is a livelihood you know”. And the situation is likely to get worse she warns me. “You are going to be seeing more and more people engaging in different kinds of work, including sex work.”
Swaziland’s government blames the financial woes on a drop in income from theÂ Southern African Customs UnionÂ following a new tariff deal. Organizations like the IMF have urged Swaziland’s government to cut its bloated civil service, reduce spending and attract foreign investors.
At the height of the crisis, anti retrovirals were scarce, cancer treatment was stopped and schools were closed. According to theAfrican Development Bank, youth unemployment in Swaziland is currently over fifty percent. Political parties may be banned here but the unions are emboldened and have led angry protests on the streets.
South Africa’s President Zuma has offered some respite after theIMF refused Swaziland a loan.Â A three hundred and fifty five million dollar bailout was agreedÂ but so far, none of that money has materialized. Majozi Sithole, Swaziland’s Finance minister, tells me.
“Right now I am not sure, we are waiting for the South Africans to engage with us whether that money is still available or not and if it is then we will gladly take it. It will assist us in meeting some of the fiscal challenges that we are currently facing but if it is not available then we are already taking steps to say let’s look at what we have.”
“I can assure you that his Majesty, the Royal Family, they never overspend in what they have been allocated. If there are any challenges then they are in other ministries,” he tells me when we met him in his office.
“Those who would blame it on his Majesty they do not have the information, he never overspends, we discuss the fiscal challenges on a weekly basis, I brief him, he has concerns and he will, as he did this year, say whatever you work don’t even increase my budget because I understand the fiscal situation.”
Sitting on a block of rubble with the sun fast descending behind her, Nelsie tells me she always wants the men she meets to use condoms.
“I am HIV positive, I have got HIV by rape, I was raped. While I was not raped I was HIV negative because I did not like to sleep with a man without a condom.”
She and around 20 other women working in the neighborhood hide in the shadows of the night waiting for a car to pull up. To feed herself she says she has to have sex with twenty men in two weeks “but sometimes in a day I used to sleep with five or six men”.
Like many people who are struggling to make a living in Swaziland, there is no respite or prospect of a bailout.
“In this work we will die so while they do not think about us I do not think they are making an improvement in this country. We know that our economy is down but they must try, whether to supply us with food, whether to supply us with work.”