Sex workers in Malawi took part in a protest in January against Covid restrictions
LILONGWE - It's shortly before 9 pm and sex worker Yvonne is perched on a barricade as lively groups of bar-goers linger on a township street in Malawi's capital Lilongwe, pushed out of pubs early by a coronavirus curfew.
In a tight-fitting red dress, golden dreadlocks reflecting her skin-tone, she sipped a can of soda as her bright eyes darted around for potential customers.
But a screech of brakes ripped through the night as a police van pulled over to fire tear gas at the crowd, which dispersed in an instant.
Yvonne, who plies her trade at a nearby brothel, said police raids on nightlife had become a new norm.
"We know they are enforcing government regulations, but it's really tough for us," she told AFP, preferring not to disclose her full name.
Malawi imposed a string of restrictions in January to curb a surge in coronavirus cases after months of relatively low infection figures.
Daily life had previously been unfolding normally in the southern African country.
A top court last year barred the government from confining citizens due to insufficient compensation for livelihood loss.
Cases have since spiralled, however, prompting President Lazarus Chakwera to order a night-time curfew and cap gatherings among other measures.
Restaurants and bars are now forced to close at 8 pm.
For sex workers like Yvonne, the clampdown on night-life has been disastrous.
"How does anyone expect us to earn a living?" she asked.
"Our business basically begins at nightfall but then they chase away all our customers... we are not making any money."
'Sex is work'
Dozens of sex workers took to the streets last month to protest coronavirus regulations, petitioning the government to push the curfew back to midnight.
The demonstration was led by the Female Sex Workers Association (FSWA), which has about 12,000 members across the country.
"Sex work is work," said FSWA national coordinator Zinenani Majawa.
"We pay our bills, including rent and food... We even send our children to school from the money that we get."
FSWA estimates that over 20,000 sex workers live in Malawi, a country of over 18-million inhabitants.
Their legal status is hazy.
While prostitution in itself is not forbidden, pimping is criminalised, making sex work treacherous even before the coronavirus hit.
Martha Kaukonde, an executive of the Malawi Law Society, noted that restrictions were justified "in the context of a deadly pandemic".
"To infringe the law is not a right," she told AFP.
'Children to feed'
In the once-thriving port town of Chipoka, on the eastern shore of Lake Malawi, Joyce Banda, 58, deplored the lack of customers.
The veteran sex worker said coronavirus was the biggest struggle she had ever encountered in over three decades on the job.
"We have children to feed. We need to bathe and wash our clothes," Banda complained.
"Where are we going to get soap if bars continue closing at 8 pm?"
Another Chipoka sex worker, Martha Mzumara, questioned the effectiveness of closing bars.
"Even people who are confined to their homes are catching it (coronavirus)," she said. "If they close bars, how are we going to meet our clients?"
But their plight has prompted little sympathy from others also struggling to make ends meet in a due to the coronavirus fallout on one of the world’s poorest countries.
"I think they are just being selfish because so many businesses have been affected," said human rights activist Madalitso Banda.
"We are lucky in Malawi that bars are even opening. To fight this pandemic, we all have to make sacrifices."