Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

“You are wasting our drugs”: health service barriers to HIV treatment for sex workers in Zimbabwe

Sibongile Mtetwa12*, Joanna Busza3, Samson Chidiya4, Stanley Mungofa5 and Frances Cowan1256

Author Affiliations

1 Zimbabwe AIDS Prevention Project, Department of Community Medicine, University of Zimbabwe College of Health Sciences, Harare, Zimbabwe

2 Centre for Sexual Health, HIV and AIDS Research Zimbabwe, 21 Rowland Square, Harare, Zimbabwe

3 Department of Population Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK

4 UNFPA, Harare, Zimbabwe

5 City of Harare Health Department, Harare, Zimbabwe

6 Research Department of Infection & Population Health, University College London, Centre for Sexual Health & HIV Research, London, United Kingdom

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BMC Public Health 2013, 13:698  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-698

Published: 31 July 2013



Although disproportionately affected by HIV, sex workers (SWs) remain neglected by efforts to expand access to antiretroviral treatment (ART). In Zimbabwe, despite the existence of well-attended services targeted to female SWs, fewer than half of women diagnosed with HIV took up referrals for assessment and ART initiation; just 14% attended more than one appointment. We conducted a qualitative study to explore the reasons for non-attendance and the high rate of attrition.


Three focus group discussions (FGD) were conducted in Harare with HIV-positive SWs referred from the ‘Sisters with a Voice’ programme to a public HIV clinic for ART eligibility screening and enrolment. Focus groups explored SWs’ experiences and perceptions of seeking care, with a focus on how managing HIV interacted with challenges specific to being a sex worker. FGD transcripts were analyzed by identifying emerging and recurring themes that were specifically related to interactions with health services and how these affected decision-making around HIV treatment uptake and retention in care.


SWs emphasised supply-side barriers, such as being demeaned and humiliated by health workers, reflecting broader social stigma surrounding their work. Sex workers were particularly sensitive to being identified and belittled within the health care environment. Demand-side barriers also featured, including competing time commitments and costs of transport and some treatment, reflecting SWs’ marginalised socio-economic position.


Improving treatment access for SWs is critical for their own health, programme equity, and public health benefit. Programmes working to reduce SW attrition from HIV care need to proactively address the quality and environment of public services. Sensitising health workers through specialised training, refining referral systems from sex-worker friendly clinics into the national system, and providing opportunities for SW to collectively organise for improved treatment and rights might help alleviate the barriers to treatment initiation and attention currently faced by SW.