It may be the world’s oldest profession, but sex work is a crime. It was out of fear of prosecution and persecution that sex workers - who marched to the Durban City Hall to commemorate the 13th International Sex Worker Rights Day on Tuesday - wore masks and face paint.
One of them was Bella*.
The 26-year-old has been a sex worker for two years, and led some of the adapted struggle songs, which demanded an end to the violations of sex workers’ rights.
Sex work is criminalised under the Sexual Offences Act.
This, they believe, leaves them vulnerable to stigmatisation and abuse, with no one to turn to. Because of this the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) was established in the early 1990s.
Fieldworkers reached out to sex workers on the streets and working for agencies, teaching them about safer sex, and giving them crisis counselling, legal advice and skills training.
In 2000, Sweat began actively advocating for the decriminalisation of adult sex work.
Bella believes one should not be labelled a criminal for using one’s body to make money.
The former sales agent said she grew tired of selling products to make money for other people, and decided to sell her own product.
“I have always been a good salesperson. I never dreamed of being a sex worker, but this is what I had to do.”
Bella chose her profession, but is not immune to the dangers. She was raped by a client and turned to Sweat for help.
In 2003, Sweat established Sisonke - a sex worker movement aimed at developing national solidarity and organising sex workers to improve their living and working conditions, as well as fighting for equal access to health rights and other human rights.
Originally from North West, Bella said she came to Durban in 2011 to marry her fiancé.
When he died, she did not go back home. “My parents think I am still in sales,” she said.
At Sisonke, Bella found a place where she belonged.
She was not shunned or made to feel ashamed. She was no longer alone. Sisonke saw to her physical and psychological well-being.
Through Sisonke’s support, Bella regained her confidence.
“I am not dependent on any man. That’s why I don’t have a boyfriend,” she said.
Despite her misgivings about relationships, Bella always wanted to be a mother. She is three months pregnant, and the father is “a guy I met”.
Had it not been for Sisonke and their partner organisations, Bella would not have had access to maternal health care.
Earning between R1 500 and R2 000 a day, Bella said she would continue working until her baby is born.
However, she admits that her baby bump may make running away from the police - who “constantly harass us” - a bit more difficult.
Zanele Bhengu* has had many bad experiences in her 16 years as a sex worker.
But her worst fear is the police. She claimed sex workers were often robbed and abused by police.
“They just do whatever they want to us because they know they are the law. As sex workers, we have no rights.”
Bhengu started going to Sisonke meetings, and was very vocal.
Recognising her fighting spirit, Sisonke recruited her. She received skills training and was appointed as a paralegal through their leadership and capacity-building programme.
“Growing up, I wanted to be a social worker. I did not get the opportunity to do that, but through the work I do at Sisonke, I am able to help others.”
Now 45 years old, Bhengu said she would soon retire from sex work.
“Like it or not, sex work is going to happen. I want to ensure that those coming up behind me do not have to endure the hardships I went through.”
Working conditions are unfair and unsafe, and sex workers are often abused by clients, pimps and members of the community, she said.
The former tearoom employee said she got into sex work after meeting sex workers in jail. She preferred not to disclose what she was arrested for, but said that, during her incarceration and after having lost her job, she was attracted to the work because of the earning potential.
The single mother of two feeds, clothes and educates her children with the money she makes.
“The job never gets easier, no matter how long you do it. You never enjoy it, but no one helps me to take care of my kids. I do it all myself.”
The maternal and social worker instinct in Bhengu kicks in when she sees young sex workers on the street.
“If I see a child, I make them get help and try to make sure I don’t see them in the street again. This is not a place where a child should be,” she said.
As a paralegal at Sisonke, she attends to the needs of incarcerated sex workers.
“They get in touch with us through our 24-hour helpline, and I go there and make sure they are fine and being treated humanely.”
She said police often did not follow procedure when arresting sex workers.
“They keep us in dirty cells with faeces everywhere. It’s terrible.”
Bhengu has come to the aid of many sex workers, and even organises legal representation if the need arises.
She believes Sweat and Sisonke have restored some dignity to the women who operate on the fringes of society.
*Not their real names