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Mokhotlong women sell their bodies to LHDA contractors

MNN Reporters

Phase II of the Lesotho Water Highlands Project is well underway. It is billed as a project with significant financial benefit to Lesotho but it carries devastating social implications for women, including under-age girls, who are selling their bodies to contractors working on the project.

Healthcare workers have noticed that women from other parts of the country are relocating to regions where huge construction sites are located to take advantage of this opportunity. They also report that school girls are dropping out of school to “date contractors”.

While attempts to mitigate this problem do not seem to be working, independent studies in Phase I of the project concluded that the primary purpose of the highlands water project was never about improving ordinary people’s lives. At the heart of the problem is poverty and unemployment.

Women and young girls interviewed by MNN explain that the most efficient way to earn money and make ends meet is to sell their bodies to contract workers from other countries who move to Lesotho to work on large constructions sites like the one in the mountainous Mokhotlong district where the new Polihali Dam is under construction as part of the Lesotho Water Highland Water Project (LWHP). The woman has no power to negotiate price for the sex or protection against sexually transmitted diseases.

The 26-year-old university dropout, Motiki Tšooana (pictured), explains how women in this region engage in transactional sex with the contractors who have travelled to the country to work on the dam and who have deep pockets.

26-year-old university dropout, Motiki Tšooana

“We date contractors for convenience,” the soft-spoken Tšooana told MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism (MNN).

“You will see that your food is finishing, the child’s vaseline as well…you just get involved with a contractor because you know that person can assist you in some ways,” Tšooana explains.

She says she has dated a South African working on the construction site. The Limkokwing University of Creative Technology (LUCT) dropout has received between M500 and M1500 in exchange for sex, exclusive of allowances for airtime and alcohol on weekends. Women that MNN interviewed explained that the fee for sex is at the discretion of the contractors. Women can ask for a price but, in the end, it is the man who has the money and the power and who decides how much he will pay. 

The Polihali Dam is the third dam to be constructed under the multi-phase  Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) between Lesotho and South Africa. The new dam will substantially increase the amount of water Lesotho transfers to South Africa in exchange for royalties.

Lesotho has earned a total of M12.8 billion for transfer of 17,503.4 million cubic metres of clean water to South Africa between 1996 and 2021, according to the Lesotho Highland Develpoment Agency (LHDA)  which is implementing the project..

Despite being touted as a successful example of regional co-operation, project implementers are evidently struggling to manage the negative social impact that the project has on both host and relocated communities.

Not only is Lesotho currently experiencing severe food insecurity as a result of the water deal to meet South Africa’s ever-increasing water needs, but there is also evidence on the ground that Phase I contributed negatively to the country’s HIV statistics.

Alive to these challenges and more, the LHDA carried out baseline studies on health, socio-economic factors and environment aimed at assisting the authority determine the project’s impact on host communities.

LHDA’s Polihali Operations Manager Gerard Mokone told the MNN that these studies will be carried out after every five years, adding that the authority also engaged communities on the socio-economic impacts of the project before the beginning of ancillary developments of the project in 2019.

“Now the purpose of all these studies, such as baseline studies, are to establish what the living conditions before the commencement of the project are. Reason is that we want that as we move forward, we should examine if we are at the level that we started from or if are we managing to develop [livelihoods]. So the objective is that from time to time, every five years, we should conduct other studies to check how far we are with regards to the baseline,” Mokone said who promised to send MNN a copy of these studies but never did.

LHDA’s Polihali Operations Manager Gerard Mokone
LHDA’s Polihali Operations Manager Gerard Mokone

Fears that Phase I challenges would be repeated in Mokhotlong have been at play from as early as 2019.

“From development to HIV crisis”

Like many women in Polihali, Tšooana who dropped out of university because of poor health uses sex as a means of income to provide for her minor son

Most contractors do not like using condoms, she says, explaining that she has personally found it difficult to persuade her contractor partners to use protection. Insisting on condom use can put the relationships with contractors and also her means of income at risk.

“It’s a problem, protection is not something that they like,” Tšooana said.

“Sometimes they will ask me if I use any form of contraceptive, I will say yes, and then he will say that’s okay, let’s do it without protection because he’s not going to impregnate me…I’ll say no because the problem is not just children [pregnancy], it is getting sick and stuff.

“He will tell me that no, there are HIV self-tests, we can test to which I will say that some things will not appear on the HIV self-test… at some point, the person I was dating, that’s what made us fight. I told him that children are not the only problem, and HIV is not the only sickness,” Tšooana said.

Unprotected sex poses a risk of one getting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), with Centres for Disease Control and Prevention explaining that “having an STD can increase your chances of getting HIV”.

Lesotho has the second-highest HIV prevalence in the world. Out of a population of 2.1 million about 340 000 people are living with HIV according to the UNAIDS.

A study by the America’s University of Oregon into Phase I of the LHWP indicates that “development driven by neoliberal prescriptions undermine public health and social and civil rights”.

The study supposes that in simple terms the primary purpose of the highlands water project was never about the improvement of ordinary people’s livelihoods, it ignored the devastating health implications brought to the people by the project.

It says this might have been mobilised to offset the HIV crisis in Lesotho by exacerbating gender inequality in the project areas.

The Demographic Health Survey (DHS) 2004 survey data shows some clusters within Phase 1B of the LHWP and around Mohale Dam with about 50 percent HIV infection rate.

The influx of migrant labour from other districts or South Africa, and all-male labour camps played a role in the spread of HIV in rural areas in Lesotho.

Other factors such as uprooted tribal structure caused by resettlement and newly constructed roads also contributed to the spread of HIV.

Being one of the poorest countries in the world with high unemployment rate, particularly among young people like Tšooana, this contributes to the vulnerability of women and their “susceptibility to commercial sex work as a survival strategy”.

In the global south, young women have more than twice the risk of acquiring HIV as their male counterparts.

“A growing body of epidemiological evidence suggests that the practice of transaction sex may contribute to this disparity,” says Science Direct.

It further explains that evidence shows that a significant association between transactional sex and HIV because women engaging in transaction sex do not have negotiating powers on the use of condoms.

Tšooana says young people like her, love “beautiful things” and will go as far as dating older men in exchange for money or expensive gifts.

“Polihali brought many changes into our lives. When an older man shows me what kind of things he can do for me, really, we’ll date them. You will also find that others even have children out of that. There are many contractors’ children here (in the communities),” Tšooana said.

Mokone says the authority has developed a Public Health Action Plan to mitigate against various socio-economic impacts the project has on host communities. The authority also formed a working partnership with the Ministry of Health. What remains a big issue is the lack of jobs and a means to make a livelihood. But, even programmes designed to employ more local villagers in projects to rehabilitate land or remove alien plants can only accommodate a limited number of people and offers only about R1 000 a month compared to the sum that can be earned through prostitution.

Children making babies

Statistics provided by the Ministry of Health indicates that 343 young women, aged less than 20, had babies in 2021 alone, an exponential growth compared to 206 babies born in 2015 in Mokhotlong district when the LHDA carried out its baseline studies.

The 343 does not include abortions and home births, with Ministry of Health saying girls between 10 and 19 years were admitted in hospital for incomplete abortions in 2021. Abortion is illegal in Lesotho. Four more girls were admitted in hospital for miscarriage in the same year.

Primary school teacher, ‘Maboiketlo Lengoasa (pictured), is concerned about the increasing number of school dropouts due to children making babies in the LHDA project area.

Primary school teacher, ‘Maboiketlo Lengoasa

“The number of teenage pregnancies has been the highest this year,” explains ‘Maboiketlo, adding that having six underage girls dropping out of school because of pregnancy qualifies as a high number for a rural school. The age of consent in Lesotho is 16 years old.

She claims that the LHDA held meetings with parents and children in Mokhotlong before the MNN visited the area in mid-July this year.

“LHDA said they noticed that many girls from this region dropped out of school as a result of falling pregnant before finishing school. They were there to teach us about that while also, highlighting that the big construction work is yet to come which will affect the children and parents to a point where even our families might break apart,” ‘Maboiketlo said.

“We are really not used to that number, rather when there is one girl pregnant there and there, and far in between. Teenage pregnancy was not as high as it is now,” ‘Maboiketlo said.

She accuses the LHDA of holding these meetings just so “they tick boxes” of what they have done in their plans, saying teachers believed sexual reproductive health education issues are way deeper than holding once-off sex education meetings for parents and children.

LHDA’s Public Health Nurse, Makapa Kampong, says the authority has contributed to the establishment of seven health posts and capacitating clinicians in Mokhotlong to help address health challenges in the district.

“When we saw that there is a problem with teenage pregnancy, we also saw that people are going to flock from all over the country to this district. We anticipated that each of these problems might increase,” Kampong said, adding that they are developing a public health policy that is mirrored on the national public health policy and it is still in the pipeline. “It is meant to address sexual exploitation and abuse in the region,” said Kampong.

Worried about the future of girl children in the area, ‘Maboiketlo says primary teachers are now dedicating their times to teaching “these children self-acceptance because now when they see one girl wearing something, they want it even if at her home they cannot afford something like that”.

She believes lack of self-acceptance leads girl children to intergenerational relationships with the LHDA contractors who willingly buy gifts for underage girls in exchange for sex.

“Sometimes they (contractors) even give them (girls) bank cards that do not work, saying that month-end she should go and withdraw money,” ‘Maboiketlo said.

These intergenerational relationships usually end with pregnancies, ‘Maboiketlo explains. The challenge is also prevalent in secondary and high schools in Mokhotlong.

In a separate interview, Sekonyela High School principal, Selotho Mothokoa, says some female learners at his school have become deceitful.

Sekonyela High School principal, Selotho Mothokoa

Mothokoa says these learners give false reasons like going to the hospital or home whenever they asked to be released from the boarding school.

“They fail to arrive at either of those destinations,” adding that upon inquiries of their location, they discovered that the girls had actually “went to see their contractor-boyfriends”.

“We have found that the majority of our former students who left the school without valid grounds are living in Mapholaneng with the contractors in rented flats,” Mothokoa said worriedly.

One of Sekonyela High School’s dropouts is Nthabiseng Koakoatsi, aged 19 and goes by the name of Sepompina.

“I used to attend Sekonyela High School and my last time at school was before the Coronavirus outbreak. There after I was no longer interested in attending school,” Sepompina said. She dropped out of school two years ago.

“My mother is in Kwazulu Natal, [South Africa]. My mother does not send me money anymore and she only gives about M1,000 once in a blue moon to my siblings who live up there in Matutleng with my uncle. She used to send us money on a monthly basis when our grandmother was still alive,” Sepompina shared.

She says she started dating LHWP contractors while still in school, way before she got estranged from her family.

She dates contractors from different companies and is not shy to admit that: “I’ve slept over at the SCLM campsite [one of the contractor companies]”.

Her admission of spending a night or more at the SCLM campsite is in line with claims by villagers that contractors sneak underage girls and women into the campsites, against the LHDA regulations.

According to villagers, the LHDA, Mapholaneng Police and health officials have had to remove a group of girls from the campsite, an allegation rubbished by Mokone and officer commanding Mapholaneng Police Station, Senior Inspector Mphelehetse Khatleli.

There are allegations that Sepompina is pregnant with a contractor’s child, an accusation she hotly denies.

“I am pregnant, but I had the baby with my local boyfriend, Thato.” She claims that Thato is fully aware of her sleeping with contractors in exchange for money.

In an attempt to prove that she is not carrying one of her contractor-boyfriends’ child, she gives two conflicting statements on use of condoms.

“In my relations with my contractor-boyfriend, I have always used a condom. But sometimes it does happen that when drunk, we do not use condoms and end up having unsafe sex,” Sepompina said, while claiming Thato has pledged to marry her.

“We never thought it will be this shocking”

Sepompina’s younger sister, Nthatisi, is following in her footsteps. Not only has Nthatisi dropped out of school, she has also started dating contractors.

Admittedly, Mokhotlong parents and guardians are struggling to discipline their children, thanks to monies and other gifts LHWP contractors give to women in exchange for sex.

The two young ladies’ uncle, who only identified himself as Isaac, says Sepompina called the police on him when he tried to discipline her. He refers to Sepompina as a prostitute that does not sleep at home.

“Sepompina is the law unto herself,” Isaac said, explaining that Sepompina frequents campsites such as Rumdel Construction and Lesotho Steel Products and if not there, she is in Mapholaneng or Ntšupe and Senqu for prostitution.

The two are now estranged, with Isaac saying he is afraid of disciplining Sepompina for fear of being arrested by police.

“Children of these days, you’ll find that when you involve yourself in their issues, they’ll even say you want to have sex with them,” Isaac said.

A 40-year-old ‘Mareabetsoe Nqatso, who lives on meagre wages, is living in fear that one day her teenage daughter will start looking to contractors to give her money.

“It’s not easy to find a job paying enough money to satisfy children at home,” Nqatso said.

Nqatso says the LHDA informed communities about the impact of the project before construction works started, saying they were warned of the possibility of unfamiliar behaviour among girls.

“We never thought it would be this shocking”. The only solace Nqatso has is that her daughter lives in Maseru, away from the influence of the contractors.

Tšooana says in some cases, underage girls are locked in one contractor’s room with other interested contractors paying to have sex with these girls, and these girls are gifted a meagre share of the proceeds.

“The contractor who brought that girl to the campsite will tell his colleagues that you guys (contractors) can pay M40 to me in order to have sex with her. Upon arrival, he will have sex with her and she will be returned to her home in the morning, given a percentage of the money made out of her,” she explained.

Breaking LHDA laws

The LHDA regulations governing contactor’s campsites strictly prohibits women from sleeping in the campsites, or even a few hours’ visit.

However, this has not stopped women desperate for contractors’ money from breaking this law. Tšooana confirms allegations that some girls are picked by taxis from Mapholaneng and sneaked into campsites.

“I haven’t been to all of them. Some are really strict while others you just get in. At one time, I snuck into a very strict one. We had to sneak in very late, pay the security guard something to let me in. I’d go there many times. And every time it was the same pattern,” she said.

Tšooana and Sepompina are not the only ones frequenting the campsites. Villagers claim contractors are so determined to break the LHDA laws that they pick girls in groups, and transport them into the campsites.

Tšooana says she has seen a video of a group of young girls getting picked and brought into the campsites by trucks in groups.

“There is someone that collects them (girls) from wherever they are in a taxi and drops them at the back of the campsite. They are then sneaked into the campsite using an excavator. This is why I said it is strict for people to get in. They were young girls, from high school. Some of those girls were girls that we knew, girls going to the boarding school [Sekonyela High School]. So those other people will organise for them and negotiate with a taxi driver to pick them up,” she said.

Seate Councilor, Mosa Lengoasa told MNN this happened in 2020 and that the girls were rescued after a Polihali man who works at the LHWP called authorities on the girls and their construction boyfriends.

“They [construction workers] were taking young girls from Mapholaneng from clubs, bars and restaurants frequented by those girls. Some of the girls were in school while others were out of school,” Lengoasa said.

He adds: “They were taking those young girls to one of the camps where the workers stayed, to have sex with them… The men who had taken those girls to have sex with in the camp were foreigners, dominantly South Africans of Zulu origin at that time,” he said.

According to Mosa, those contractors no longer work within the project. It is not clear whether they were dismissed for breaking the LHDA laws or not.

Although Mokone says the LHDA has heard of stories of women sleeping at the campsites against strict laws that prohibit cohabitation between contractors and women in the area, he hotly rubbishes allegations that a group of girls were removed from the campsites.

“The truth is that when a woman wants to get inside the camp, she can even rip that fence open with her teeth; or even negotiate entrance with the security guard. We are not saying things like this cannot happen, but we are saying some of these things we don’t know about them, but where we do hear (these stories), we take action,” Mokone said.

Lengoasa fears for the future of the host communities when the project ends, putting emphasis on degradation of moral and cultural values.

“At the completion of this project, our society and its social fabric will be worse off and these jobs of the migrants would have come to an end and our young women’s future would have been destroyed. These men whom they think have money would have left them with all sorts of problems,” Lengoasa said.

Tšooana fears what is going to become of her when the contractors leave. “They are not here forever. One wonders, what is this person going to leave with, with a child? Where will I be in life? Is he going to leave me with a child or what?”

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