WHY WE WANT TO BE LEGAL
‘Why do we continue being labelled as criminals when we don’t kill or rob anybody but do this so that we can feed our children?’
It’s the world’s oldest profession, but it’s still illegal to practise it. And now rights groups have lambasted a recommendation by the SA Law Reform Commission (SALRC) to keep sex work criminal, saying it does nothing to protect the workers’ rights. Two weeks ago, the SALRC released its long-awaited report on how sex work should be regulated and recommended its continued criminalisation, drawing outrage.
Mosima Kekana, an attorney at the Women’s Legal Centre, said: “The criminalisation of sex work is ineffective as a deterrent, and this leads to the increased abuse of sex workers, and an inefficient allocation of the state’s resources in the fight against crime.
“Sex workers are stigmatised in society which impacts on their ability to access services and enjoy family life, and undermines interventions to fight the spread of HIV.”
Sisonke Sex Workers’ Movement national coordinator Kholi Buthelezi agreed, saying it was surprising that the commission failed to recognise sex workers’ constitutional right to dignity.
“The report reveals how shoddy the consultation process was and how a selected few that were against sex work were consulted,” she said.
City Press asked two women on the streets why they don’t want to be viewed as criminals any more.
Sylvia Dladla (39)
Three weeks ago, Dladla was beaten up, stripped naked and left for dead by a client who picked her up on Johannesburg’s notorious Oxford Road. She didn’t report what happened to the police, because they would have thrown her – and not her attacker – behind bars.
“It’s hard for us to report such incidents because the police see us as criminals,” she says. “If I go and report, they will arrest me because I am not supposed to be working as a sex worker. What I don’t understand is why we continue being labelled as criminals when we don’t kill or rob anybody but do this so that we can feed our children.”
This was not the first time the Yeoville resident had been a victim of violence while at work.
“It’s so common that we always expect it to happen when we go out to the streets,” she says. The mother of three cannot afford to stop, though. “If I stop today, seven people [her four siblings and three children] who depend on me will go to bed hungry and my children will have no shelter. I don’t like what I do but it helps me to put food on the table and ensure that my kids go to school,” she says.
Dladla left Nquthu in KwaZulu-Natal two decades ago to find a job in Johannesburg. When she was 15, her parents died in a car accident and, as the eldest child, she had to provide for her siblings. She dropped out of school and did other people’s laundry until a friend encouraged her to come to Johannesburg to find a job. But months went by without her being hired and sex work became her only option.
Twenty years later and still without options, she continues doing the dangerous job she hates.
“I have never worked. I was too young when I came to Johannesburg and all I have done while living here is sex work,” she says.
“You can be killed by your client and even raped by the police.”
Recalling her attack in Illovo three weeks ago, she says she could have died if she had not regained consciousness and been rushed to hospital.
And it’s not just clients and police that mistreat sex workers, community members do too. She says she has been sworn at and threatened with violence a number of times by ordinary people who accuse her of spreading HIV.
Jackie Mabunda (40)
Mabunda was only 19 when her boss took advantage of her. The Zimbabwean woman was a domestic worker when her boss had sex with her, promising her money in return.
“He used to sleep with me saying he’ll give any money I demanded. I was young and naive, I just wanted money.”
But she got tired of sleeping with her boss and decided to be a full-time sex worker. Raised by a single mother, she also had to provide for her unemployed mum and two siblings. Armed with only a matric, she also struggled to find a proper job.
“I thought if I go out and look for money elsewhere I could help my siblings to further their education, and ever since I’ve been the breadwinner.”
To this day her family, who she told she was a cleaner in Johannesburg, doesn’t know what the mother of one does for a living. These days, she says there isn’t much money to be made on the streets. “It’s not like before when we started. Now on a good day I’ll make R500 and on a bad day maybe R100 or nothing. It’s hard out there,” she says. “Some clients take advantage of us. They attack, harass and abuse us. Some take their money back after the job is done; there are psychopaths out there.” She was raped by a “decent” client in 2010. “He refused to use protection. He told me I was worthless and he was going to sleep with me for free; he threatened me with a gun. I had no choice but to just deliver the goods,” she said. Mabunda says the men who abused her were wealthy businessmen who drove luxury cars. “You can’t expect someone of that calibre to do such things. “I broke my ankle while I was driving with a client. He attacked and pushed me while the car was moving. He had paid me and demanded his money back after I’d delivered. I didn’t want to give it back.” The attack kept her out of work for four months. She had to return to the streets before she’d recovered to provide for her family. “I’ve reported at least eight cases [to the police], including rape, but the police don’t care about us. I’ve lost hope in the police.”
Sex workers say that, because their jobs are criminalised, reporting to police the abuse they routinely suffer at the hands of their clients is often not an option as they, and not their abusers, are likely to end up behind bars