Telling the story of a sex worker

AminaAmina was one of nearly twenty urban sex workers I met in Tanzania’s capital a while ago on a film, photography and storygathering assignment.

I was interviewing them to capture the perspectives of marginalised women, which we wanted to amplify in support of VSO’s campaign for increasing women’s involvement in decision-making globally. They had formed a grassroots organisation to lobby for access to basic services.

As you might expect, all the sex workers were quite different in appearance and manner. Some were confident and assertive, others shy and sceptical of what we were there to do. Some wanted to be identified on camera, even though their work is illegal and dangerous; while others wanted to share their personal story, but remain anonymous. Amina was one of the young women, who did not want to be identified, and it was her experience that really did strike a chord.

Her journey was one of a young village girl living in poverty, lured to the city under the false pretence of being given work as a maid. Still in her teens, she was forced into a life of prostitution. She managed to escape it, but without any other obvious means of survival, she continues to live and work as an illegal sex worker in Dar es Salaam today.

The issue of sex workers’ rights is a sensitive one. Some people find it hard to sympathise, believing women should not choose this way of life, while others would argue that everyone, regardless of their background, should not be denied basic human rights.

With colleagues back in the UK, we decided to tell Amina’s story through animation, which allowed her to tell her own story in a way that protected her identity. We commissioned an animator to produce initial sketches of what the animated version of Amina might look like, after giving him the general outline of the story.

His first sketches were based on his assumptions of what a Tanzanian sex worker might look like. They could not have been further from the real Amina. He produced images of a woman in a scanty red dress with bright lipstick on. In reality, Amina’s hair was covered with a scarf when we met, and she was dressed in fairly ordinary clothes.

Of course he could not have known that, but it made me consider what we may unconsciously presume about people who live their lives in a certain way.

Amina certainly challenged my expectations of who chooses to be a sex worker, and clearly demonstrated how her choice to engage in illegal sex work today is deeply connected to circumstances far beyond her control.

You can watch Amina’s story here:


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