Sex workers in Buffalo City are being criminalised and ostracised by the law, hounded by police, and beaten and exploited by customers, pimps and brothel keepers.
Such abuse of human rights needed to be aired, right from the steps of city hall. That’s where 10 local prostitutes – nine women
and a man – stood their ground and spoke out about the undercurrent of abuse in the city.
The group, wearing jeans and bright orange campaign T-shirts, were members of the Sisonke National Sex Workers’ Movement and Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat).
They were taking part in the 16th annual International Sex Workers’ Human Rights Day.
They dished out pamphlets and spoke to members of the public, advocating decriminalisation and recognition of their rights.
The sex workers’ day started in 2001 when 25000 sex workers gathered in India for a festival.
The day has been adopted around the world with different organisations celebrating it on March 3.
For those who wanted to know but did not know how to ask, the sex workers’ booth at City Hall was titled: “Ask a Sex Worker”.
The Saturday Dispatch watched as sex workers engaged with members of the public to debunk stereotypes that individuals might have about sex workers and their labour.
Sisonke’s Eastern Cape coordinator Abongile Gungubele said the day had helped to create a space for the voices of sex workers to be heard.
Gungubele, a sex worker, said they were working closely with the department of social development.
He said during door-to-door campaigns, or visits to “hot spots”, they often encountered sex workers as young as 13. Instead of only giving them health tips, they referred them to the department.
Gungubele said sex workers were criminalised and stigmatised and were vulnerable to assault by clients, pimps and brothel keepers.
“We are often harassed by the police and fall victim to crime by having to work in dangerous environments in order to escape public scrutiny. If anything we would like to be protected by the police.”
Humans rights officer at Sweat, Nosipho Vidima, said the organisation wanted to talk to communities about issues faced by sex workers on a daily basis.
She and others said the law criminalised and marginalised sex workers, and helped create a toxic society where sex workers were exploited.
Vidima said this year’s commemoration happened a week before the Western Cape High Court was to deliver judgment on the state vs Zwelethu Mthethwa.
Mthethwa, a high-profile South African artist, is accused of beating to death 23-year-old sex worker Nokuphila Khumalo in April 2013.
“This case has been ongoing for four years. Since then three other cases involving the murder of sex workers have gone to trial.
“In all three cases the murderers received guilty convictions. We hope that this is taken into account in the upcoming Mthethwa judgment,” she said. — Qaqambam@dispatch.co.za