A magazine that’s a friend in need

A magazine that’s a friend in need

She’s like the girlfriend who can answer all your crazy sex questions. She speaks her mind on issues, and she even has great tips on how to rock the season’s top make-up trends.

‘She’ is Amaqhawe, a magazine launched nearly two years ago, targeting sex workers in the Gert Sibande district.

The magazine, produced by consultancy company HAD (Health & Development Africa) for the CDC (United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), serves as a communication tool and is part of a broader programme aimed at promoting safe sex practices among high-risk groups in the province.

Its innovation though is that it opens up two-way communication between sex workers and the many different agencies working to curb the spread of HIV, and to improve awareness about protection for sex workers. This is a district where transactional sex is a dominant form of livelihood or supplementary income. The magazine represents a platform for sex workers to raise their questions, place their issues on the editorial agenda, and to give feedback. The magazine also uses social media and SMS communication to reach sex workers registered with the programme. It has proven to be a more immediate tool of communication.

The name Amaqhawe, which means ‘heroine’, was chosen by the sex workers in the programme (they also chose a red umbrella as the symbol for the programme). The name represents a different way that sex workers want to be identified says Margaret Roper, programme director of Amaqhawe.

Roper says: ‘The magazine is not about glamourising sex work, but is about recognising that the majority of these woman do sex work as one part of their lives. The women also have a whole different dimension to their lives, where they are mothers, wives, where they go to church and go about their ordinary lives, too. So it’s about empowerment and a message that is informative and, at the same time, uplifting.”

“…the magazine makes no apology for being deliberately sexual, graphic and open so that it speaks plainly to the real-life situations the women experience”

Sex work represents an important part of the ‘invisible economy’ of the province and it’s the way that families put bread on their tables or supplement their income.

The magazine, which HAD decided to publish in English for logistical reasons, is distributed throughout the district to the about 500 women who are registered with Amaqhawe and other interest groups. It represents an open, public voice for a group of workers who have mostly been forced to operate in the shadows, and been relegated to a group on the periphery of mainstream society.

Roper says the magazine makes no apology for being deliberately sexual, graphic and open so that it speaks plainly to the real-life situations the women experience. These include issues like condom negotiation with clients, how to check for STIs, how to find help if they have been raped, and even legal advice.

The information puts a strong message across but the mix of content, which includes fashion tips, recipes, horoscopes celebrity profiles and an agony aunt-type feature, ensures it is more than the average information pamphlet that is probably binned. ‘It’s meant to be very much like any other commercial women’s magazine. We held focus groups in the beginning and meet with the sex workers themselves once a year to understand the issues and the challenges they face, and we work these into the magazine that comes out on a quarterly basis,’ says Roper.

She adds: ‘It’s also not just for sex work, but also for people involved in relationships of transactional sex, in abusive relationships. ‘In fact, we know the magazine gets passed on between friends and the feedback we’re getting is that all sorts of readers are finding information in the magazine that’s useful or interesting to them.’

That is impact that can make a difference.