"Some clients force us to kiss them” - sex workers during pandemic
Lindiwe Mabe fears for her life. For the past month, she has been forced to continue working despite the risk she faces of contracting the coronavirus.
As a prostitute, Mabe is at high risk of contracting the virus as her job entails physical contact.
Despite her unwillingness to continue working, Mabe is forced to roam the streets each day looking for new clients.
She is forced to work as she has to pay her pimp a portion of her daily earnings to ensure she has a roof over her head.
“The brothel owner demands money every single day because we need to pay rent, so there’s nothing I can do,” says Mabe.
She operates at the Wonderfontein Puma Garage Truck Stop in Bronkhorstspruit and spends several hours a day searching for clients.
“The coronavirus has really affected myself and many other prostituted women,” says Mabe.
“We don’t have any protective measures, which puts our lives at risk. Even if I try to wash my hands all of the time, it doesn’t mean I am not at risk because washing hands is not the only solution to avoid this virus.”
She carries hand sanitiser in her bag, but fears it’s not enough. “Some of the sex buyers demand that you kiss them and so there’s nothing I can really do to protect myself. Of late, clients have been coming with sanitiser sprays, wipes and so on, but I’m not sure if that’s enough.”
Business has been quieter since the spread of the virus, so Mabe is forced to give in to her clients’ demands.
“Those men that do still buy sex from prostituted persons may very well insist on sex without condoms and we may end up agreeing to this purely because that may be the only sex buyer we have that day.”
“There are barely any sex buyers these days because they also fear getting the coronavirus.”
Before the Covid-19 outbreak in South Africa, Mabe made about R800 a night.
“Now I only make R100 per night. Some of the women spend the night at the truck stop without getting any money.”
Bongiwe Dlamini, who operates out of the Nelspruit Brothel on Anderson Street, in Mpumalanga, has also been struggling in the past month.
“The virus has affected me personally and judging from my experience, all prostituted women are affected. There’s simply no money to pay the brothel owner or feed myself or my family.
“I used to make R500 a day, of which I pay R150 daily to the brothel. Then I use the rest to feed myself and my family. But due to the coronavirus spreading in the country I can’t even afford all that.
“This past month has been very hard on me, especially because I am reliant on medication, and lately I haven’t had money for food or medication.”
Apart from making barely any money, Dlamini is also forced to risk her life.
“It’s very dangerous. Even though we don’t have that many clients these days, we still come into contact with different people every day.
“Washing hands is not enough because my job is all about physical contact. Living in a brothel is very painful because you end up doing a lot of unsafe acts with sex buyers because you have to make money to pay the brothel.”
Linda Gumede, who works in taverns in Belfast, Wonderfontein and Carolina, is unsure how she will continue her work during the lockdown.
“We are confused and frustrated as prostituted women. We don’t know what will happen to us now,” says Gumede.
“How are we going to survive? We desperately need help. There’s no employment, we are poor women trying to survive poverty, and depression is going to kill us.
“I was thinking of going back home, but I don’t have the money, nor do I have the financial means to help my family.”
Siphindile Cele, a former prostitute and now a member of the Kwanele survivor movement, believes that the coronavirus has had a horrific impact on prostitutes worldwide.
“Nobody would knowingly take on a job where their life is guaranteed to be at risk,” says Cele.
“However, this is the daily reality for an ever-increasing number of unemployed South Africans, predominantly women but certainly also male and transgender people.”
It’s now even more difficult for prostitutes to protect themselves.
“It is difficult enough getting sex buyers to use a condom,” Cele says.
“The coronavirus presents unique challenges in that, being a non-sexually transmitted illness, one cough or sneeze is enough to infect the recipient.
“Coronavirus spread through droplet transmission so sanitising surfaces and maintaining a distance between people is key to containing it.
“These precautions are not always practical for homeless individuals, who often lack access to soap and hot water and stay in crowded shelters. They also have a high rate of poorly treated chronic illnesses, putting them at greater risk of a severe Covid-19 infection,” she says.
Once people without homes get sick, they may lack the proper care required to recover, including a comfortable place to rest, warm liquids and medication.