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Surviving the Night: Lesotho’s Sex Workers Share Tales of Exploitation, Assault, and Resilience 

15 December 2023 by Limpho Sello  

Est Read Time: 13 min(s) 40 sec(s)

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KAPAL will commemorate the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers tomorrow. The occasion will be observed with a peaceful march from IEMS to Sefikeng sa Moshoeshoe. Credit: KAPAL Facebook Page.

Three women, discreetly identified as Teboho Leralla, Tholoana Khoabane, and Ntaoli Boholo to safeguard their identity, are seated on a black three-seater couch. 

The first two women are clad in blue jeans and jackets, while the third, Boholo, sports black stretch pants and a white T-shirt. It is easy to mistake these women for horror magnets as their stories unfold. 

Each word that rolls out of their mouths unveils harrowing tales of affluent men in Lesotho, paying as high as M500 for unprotected sex, a significant leap from the usual price of M70 per round of intimacy. 

However, a more sinister aspect emerges as unknown men deceitfully pose as clients, only to perpetrate violent assaults under the threat of a gun or knife. 

This leaves Leralla, Khoabane, and Boholo stranded in the wilderness, struggling to find their way back to the streets of Maseru in the middle of the night. 

Leralla (35) Khoabane (29) and Boholo (33) are all sex workers. They are also HIV-positive. 

Khoabane hits the streets every night, shouldering the responsibility of earning funds for food, her two children’s school fees, and rent. Speaking to Uncensored News, she reveals the substantial toll these financial commitments take on her. 

“When a client approaches and offers me M500 for unprotected sex, a notable increase from the standard rate of M70 per round, I choose the higher price. It signifies that on that particular night, I’ve managed to earn a significant amount with just one client. By dawn, I will have generated enough income to ensure my children have something to eat,” Khoabane explained. 

Khoabane notes that when everything proceeds smoothly, it is well and good. However, she highlights the challenge when a client forcibly engages in sexual activity without payment and without using protection. 

In a distressing incident, a client accused Khoabane of stealing his money and fired gunshots at her. She managed to escape and sought refuge under the counter at Pitso Ground Police Station. 

Although she was not shot at during this particular incident, Khoabane did sustain a gunshot wound in a separate altercation with a different client. 

For Leralla, the most terrifying aspect is the uncertainty of distinguishing a genuine client from one who might turn violent, leaving her abandoned in the wilderness in the middle of the night. 

“I am a victim of a client who sexually assaulted me and left me stranded on top of the Mpilo plateau,” Leralla revealed, prompting Boholo to recount her own harrowing experience. 

“One client once slapped me really hard and confiscated the money he had already paid. In another incident, a different client left me in an open space in the middle of nowhere after our encounter. Some of us bear physical scars from stab wounds on our bodies,” Boholo shared. 

Decriminalise sex work 

Despite the real dangers they face, these women continue to walk the streets in search of clients, fully aware that their work puts them at odds with Section 55 of Lesotho’s Penal Code of 2010, which criminalises sex work. 

“A person who incites, instigates, engages, or procures another to engage, either in Lesotho or elsewhere, in prostitution, commits an offence,” reads Section 55 (2). 

They believe it is time for Lesotho to decriminalise their work, providing legal protection against unruly clients. The Key Affected Populations Alliance of Lesotho (KAPAL) is the first and only legally registered sex worker organization in the country. 

This sex worker-led organisation, with 80 percent of its decision-makers being current or former sex workers, advocates for the human and health rights of sex workers in Lesotho. 

KAPAL’s key functions include advocating for the legalisation of sex work and its inclusion in Lesotho’s labor statutes. They conduct this advocacy by sensitising communities, government institutions, ministries, relevant stakeholders, gatekeepers, and working towards eradicating stigma and discrimination against sex workers. 

Lepheane Mosooane. Credit: Mosooane

Lepheane Mosooane, the Executive Director of KAPAL, discussed with Uncensored News how clients are fully aware that these women lack legal protection. 

“Sex workers are taken advantage of by clients who refuse to pay for protected sex,” Mosooane stated. 

He added, “Another issue is that police officers, instead of taking appropriate action against people they perceive as suspected sex workers at night, forcefully engage in unprotected sex with them.” 

Police spokesperson, Senior Superintendent Kabelo Halahala, emphasises that it is unacceptable for police officers to engage in sexual assault or theft from sex workers. 

“Any victims should promptly report such incidents to the police authority, allowing for immediate action against the perpetrators. As of now, there have been no reported cases of sex workers accusing police officers of rape or theft,” Senior Superintendent Halahala stated in an interview with Uncensored News on 15 December 2023. 

Mosooane believes decriminalising sex work will not only benefit sex workers but addresses issues like police brutality against sex work and that the entire country would benefit from this proposed move. 

Sally-Jean Shackleton, director of the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) based in South Africa, highlighted in a study titled ‘Lives on the Line: Sex Work in Sub-Saharan Africa‘ that sex workers encounter challenges akin to those faced by migrants. They find themselves isolated from assistance due to the criminalisation of sex work in most African countries. 

“The law is silent while women experience violence from the police, the public, their clients, and often their partners. The worst violence is in Maseru where sex workers are known to the community. They are repeatedly beaten up by police, robbed of their money, and raped,” Shackleton said. 

Sex workers Teboho Leralla, Tholoana Khoabane, and Ntaoli Boholo firmly believe that parliamentarians must repeal Section 55 of the Penal Code because it is beneficial to all involved – service providers and clients alike. 

“Our plea is for sex work to become decriminalised and be treated like any job. There is a high unemployment rate in the country, and we are here to be able to provide for our family,” Leralla said, adding, “there must be laws that regulate it like other jobs.” 

This is because one thing these women are sure of: their services are desperately needed by men and, in some odd cases, by married couples. 

“Despite working in a very harsh environment and suffering a lot of abuse, we are very sure that this is a service that is needed by most men and, sometimes married couples who can’t satisfy one another due to various reasons that include health conditions. We have clients who are couples that seek our services either for the wife or the husband,” Leralla explained. 

Khoabane believes it is unjust that clients, including some parliamentarians and senior government officials, are not advocating for the decriminalisation of sex work in Lesotho. 

“We have clients who are members of parliament; some are government officials,” Khoabane revealed. 

She adds: “We see them on television all the time and recognize them as our clients, but they do not want to enact laws that protect us. When we have conversations with them, they claim that it is impossible because Lesotho is a Christian country. Funny enough, there is no Christianity in the constitution, yet they hide behind it every time we have this conversation with them.” 

Empty promises 

These legislators and other affluent men in Lesotho often sidestep the conversation around decriminalising sex work by promising financial security to Khoabane and others. 

“Clients would rather promise to take us to school and take care of our financial needs. But their promises are half-empty. They can assist you for months or a year and disappear into thin air. When you try to find their whereabouts, you will find out that they have found themselves a new sex worker from a different hangout spot. They alternate between us just like that to avoid the topic of decriminalising sex work,” Khoabane explained. 

On her part, Boholo believes that conservative Lesotho society must understand that sex services are essential to their clients. 

“If a client has different sex preferences, we provide them with such. If they want oral sex, we provide them with such as long as they pay. So that is why they always come back to get our services. 

“We want to make it clear that we do not want to tear apart families. We are on the streets to provide a service, get paid, and go home. We are not home wreckers. That is why even married people come to us to obtain a service and go back to their wives,” Boholo said. 


In the realm of legislative advocacy, Mokhothu Makhanyalane, a lawmaker for Mokhethoaneng constituency and the chairperson of the parliamentary Social Cluster portfolio committee, has taken up the cause of educating people about a private member’s bill. 

On 15 December 2023, Makhalanyane told Uncensored News that groups like KAPAL or even individuals, can draft a private member’s bill proposing the decriminalisation of sex work. 

Mokhothu Makhalanyane. Credit: Pascalinah Kabi.

According to Makhalanyane, this bill can be submitted to his committee for deliberations and potentially be tabled in the National Assembly. 

“Unless it is a private member’s bill, the current practice of formulating the law is that government ministries are responsible for tabling proposed laws in parliament. This particular issue falls under the Ministry of Health, and we have not received a bill or proposal from this ministry regarding social reproductive health issues. We can only look into this issue (decriminalising the law) if we receive a proposal from this ministry,” Makhalanyane said. 

He added: “Secondly, we have tried to inform organizations and individuals that these bills are not the responsibilities of government ministries only. Organisations and individuals can actually write a private member’s bill on a particular issue that they want reformed. They can bring that proposed bill to parliament, and it will be tabled by one of the members of parliament in the National Assembly for discussion as a private member’s bill.” 

He says the bill will be interrogated to establish its implications on the state coffers and the constitution of Lesotho. The ministry can sometimes object to such a bill if it has financial implications, but where there is no such thing, a private member’s bill can be passed into law. 

“It is seriously important for people to understand that they do not have to wait for a particular ministry to table a bill. If people are ready and there is a need to pass such a law, people are supposed to bring a bill for consideration. 

“There are private member’s bills that we are to discuss when parliament opens. These bills are on issues that ministries did not really show interest in, and we are going to discuss and pass them into law,” Makhalanyane said. 

He says this serves as a living example that groupings like KAPAL and individuals can champion their cause by writing and submitting a private member’s bill to parliament. 

Health Minister, Selibe Mochoboroane, was not immediately available to answer questions. 

High HIV prevalence 

Amid Makhalanyane’s proposal that KAPAL should submit a private member’s bill to repeal Section 55 of the Penal Code, Leralla, Khoabane, and Boholo commit to ensuring they do not disrupt families. 

However, they share a sobering reality — they have been infected with HIV in their line of work. Nevertheless, this has not deterred them from engaging in unprotected sex with the highest bidders, who sometimes pay seven times the amount of their standard charge for one round.. 

More harrowing is the practice of engaging in unprotected sex while on their menstrual periods, resorting to inserting sponges and cotton wool in their vaginas to manage and conceal blood flow from their clients. They explain that they cannot afford to miss work during their menstrual periods. 

Despite the urgency of their financial needs, these women are fully aware that these harmful practices expose them to sexually transmitted infections (STI’s) and elevate their risks of developing cervical cancer. 

According to the Lesotho HIV Strategic Plan for 2023 to 2028, key populations, often at risk of infection, are frequently victims of punitive laws, stigma, and discrimination. 

This strategic plan, launched on World AIDS Day in Matsieng on December 1, 2023, further highlights a lack of data on key populations. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) estimates the prevalence of HIV among sex workers to be approximately 71.9 percent. 

Prevalence rates vary across the four districts, with Leribe having the highest at 57 percent, followed by Maseru at 48 percent, Mafeteng at 45 percent, and Botha-Bothe at 39 percent. 

Relebohile Tsehlo, a consultant with the National AIDS Commission (NAC), attended a strategic meeting in Maseru in 2022. During the meeting, he shared that there are approximately 7,500 female sex workers in Maseru, Leribe, Mafeteng, and Botha-Bothe. 

Tsehlo conveyed concerning information about syphilis, stating that one in four women in each of the four districts is infected with this sexually transmitted infection, which can lead to serious and potentially life-threatening problems if left untreated. 

On a slightly positive note, Tsehlo revealed that HIV testing and awareness of status among sex workers are at 83.3 percent. While sex workers reported effective condom use negotiations with their clients, Tsehlo highlighted that condom usage is not consistently observed between sex workers and their clients. 

This inconsistency, he explained, exposes sex workers to a high risk of contracting HIV. Lesotho has the second-highest HIV prevalence globally, standing at 21 percent. 

“Transactional sex is associated with intergenerational sex and concurrency factors that both contribute to HIV transmissions. Sex work in Lesotho tends to be informal because it is criminalised,” Tsehlo said. 

How they got infected with HIV 

For sex workers and their clients, Matlakala and Boholo said HIV is not a topic often discussed. Even when it arises, there is always some dishonesty either by a client or them. 

“We would rather say we are on pre-exposure prophylaxes (PreP). But many of us sex workers know our status because there are many organizations that work with us who always educate and advise us to know our status.” 

Highlighting the real-world impact of these risk factors, in 2011, 29-year-old Leralla got infected with HIV, just a year after she started her sex work. 

“I had a client whom I thought was a loyal client. This client was an old man who would always buy my services every time he came to our spot. Every time he came for my services, he paid M700 for unprotected sex,” Leralla explained. 

Although Leralla observed that the old man was often tired and had developed very dry skin, she never suspected that this high-paying client was HIV-positive. A security guard working near her customer recruitment spot advised her to consider the health of some of her co-workers who had previously serviced this old man. 

“He mentioned that the health of my co-workers started deteriorating soon after they began working with this old man, my client. Shortly after that conversation with the security guard, I fell sick with the flu. Upon getting tested, I discovered that I was HIV positive. I suspect the old man infected me because I had recently given birth to my child, and I was not HIV positive,” Leralla said. 

Credit: The Post Newspaper.

Unlike Leralla, Khoabane and Boholo suspect that they were not infected by their clients but by former lovers who hid their statuses from these two women. 

About five years ago, Khoabane discovered that she is HIV positive and is on antiretrovirals. However, she confesses that she does not always take her medication, believing that ARVs make her gain weight, making it difficult to attract clients. 

“But when I default, I always go back to them because I feel it when my health deteriorates,” Khoabane said, adding “I would be lying if I said I consistently use a condom when I sell sex. I do not.” 

During the periods when Khoabane defaults and practices unprotected sex, she may transmit HIV to her clients, who in turn may transmit it to their wives or other partners. Condom usage is low among married couples, some of whom seek services from Khoabane. 

Boholo reveals that her ex-boyfriend never told her he was HIV positive. Her story began with a body rash, prompting her to seek medication at a clinic where she was tested for HIV. 

“I was told I am HIV positive. I went back home and broke the news to my boyfriend. He went for HIV testing, and his results were positive. 

“But, one morning, I decided to spring clean my rented room. I found his medical booklet under my mattress and went through it. I discovered that he knew about his HIV positive status long before I went for tests but he decided to hide it from me. Going to the clinic after I told him I am HIV positive was just a disguise for him,” Boholo said. 

A dicey situation 

Lepheane Mosooane, the Executive Director of the Key Affected Populations Alliance of Lesotho (KAPAL), highlighted that sexual violence and consistent abuse by law enforcement towards sex workers are contributing factors to the increasing rate of new HIV infections. 

“The other issue is clients negotiating unprotected sex for a higher price than the standard rate. All of these acts are contributing factors to new HIV infections, hence the need to decriminalise sex work to minimise or eliminate new HIV infections,” Mosooane argued. 

He adds that the presence of a law that protects sex workers will prevent such incidents. Lesotho has the second-highest HIV prevalence in the world. Discrimination and stigma attached to sex work do not help the situation, Mosooane explains. 

“Discrimination and stigma against sex workers and their clients go as far as health facilities grounds and corridors. Because of this, people shy away from seeking health services, especially HIV preventive tools and ART services,” Mosooane said. 

Credit: KAPAL Facebook Page.

He adds: “And when that happens, it becomes obvious that new infections cannot be minimised or eliminated.” Away from health facilities, sex workers daily deal with discrimination and stigma within communities they live or originate from. 

“But with the availability of the laws that protect and regulate their service, people will start to show respect for the profession, which will make it easier for them and clients to seek services and adhere to their treatment without the fear of being judged or charged for violating the law,” he said. 

With the anticipated law in place, Mosooane says sex workers would be able to boldly negotiate condom usage or be able to report any sexual violations against them. 

He argues there is a need for domestic funding mobilisation for sex work programmes. KAPAL currently relies on foreign funding. 

“Government is supporting sex workers’ programs indirectly. If they allow such programs to carry on and also approve them and foreign funding, we will be able to eradicate or minimise HIV infections,” Mosooane said. 

Interestingly, Mosooane says while the government has the power to deny the establishment of any sex work-related programmes, it accepts donor funding to be used around the same community. 

Meanwhile, Khoabane says while they engage in unprotective sex, they try by all means possible to seek free and convenient sexual reproductive health services at the Lesotho Planned Parenthood Association (LPPA). Khoabane does this whenever she feel sick after unprotective sex. 

“LPPA is our safest place to go to whenever we feel unwell. This is because they open until late at night and we are not stigmatised when we get service from there. They understand our work,” Khoabane said. 

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