Pandemic exposes sex workers to more social ills
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With the Covid-19 pandemic presenting economic challenges and more people struggling to make a living, some sex workers in South Africa are now plying their trade on the internet.
You simply go on Google to search for a “service” that you want, in any area, and a host of options will soon pop up. The client has an option of going where the sex worker is or requesting an e-hailing ride for them to come to his place.
And in a country that records high numbers of gender-based violence, the threat on sex-workers’ lives in now even more heightened as unsuspecting young women could be lured by human traffickers.
A study released by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and the Perinatal HIV Research Unit (PHRU), showed that almost three-quarters (71%) of female sex workers have been exposed to physical violence and more than half (58%) had been raped.
Over and above these tragic statistics is a shocking revelation that one in seven women had been raped by a policeman.
With the economic downturn caused by Covid-19 last year, research shows a more likely increase in the number of people engaging in “survival-type” of sex work, as well as increased violence against women.
But even in the face of violence, these young women don’t seem to be deterred.
Thirty-three-year-old *Ayanda Zwane from Protea Glen in Soweto is part of a sex operation that runs from a house around the area. The group of girls pays a daily rental fee of R200 a room, which they use on a rotational basis. They then advertise their detailed offerings on the net.
“We then post on that ad space as to what you offer and the client comes to that house. So you leave home going to work and then you go back home after your day ends,” she said, adding that the business is expanding to other parts of Soweto due to the huge demand for their services.
“Unfortunately, safety is something that is not guaranteed but we do it nonetheless. The truth is these things (sex work) are scary, but the house is secure and that’s as far as it goes. Our customers are of a certain calibre, and that is comforting,” said Zwane.
Dr Jenny Coetzee, the Principal Investigator (PI) of the study, said it was very important that society understands sex work holistically.
“Often we find perceptions that are really dehumanising to sex workers. There is either a very romantic notion of pretty women or this notion of these dirty people on the side of the road.
“So we started doing the study to really unpack the dynamics of these women's lives and the violence component was just one part of a much larger study.
“It highlighted just how incredibly vulnerable the sector is to violence, where these women are physically forced to have sex against their will and get brutally attacked,” she said.
“Although the Constitutional Court has ruled that the criminalisation of sex work in our law is unconstitutional and that it requires review, nothing has been done. When government speaks about decriminalising sex work, it is a political tool that is being used to manipulate a not unsubstantial proportion of our population.
“We have between 1% and 4% of adult women that engage in sex work and that excludes men and buyers of sex - all of whom are criminalised. My sense is that it's a nice term to kick around and use politically, but there isn’t any real political will which is incredibly sad and cruel and unconstitutional,” she said.
Coetzee added that this resistance to decriminalise sex has created a situation where the police and perpetrators of violence, which in this case are largely men, are able to commit incredibly violent acts without impurity. Simply because they know they won’t be arrested or caught, knowing that no one can actually press charges against them.
“We really have this extremely unjust system in place at the moment and there is a huge need for legal reform, that is really respectful of the men and women who engage in this space,” she said, reminding the president of a commitment he made in 2016 to the sex work sector.“
She highlighted a need for a much better understanding of the men that are buying sex, and having improved approaches to epidemics.
“For instance, our HIV epidemic is all about PMTCT (Prevention of Mother To Child Transmission) and it's all about women being shown how to put a condom on men and women taking responsibility of protecting themselves - basing it on women survivors and being responsible for not getting raped instead of making men responsible for not raping.
“I am yet to see programs in this country that are focused on men, that are focused on violence prevention from an early age. That we can start doing tomorrow, there is nothing stopping us but our own will and financial constraints placed on us by politicians,” she said.
Meanwhile, Megan Lessing from the Sex Worker Education & Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) said the solution lies in sex work being decriminalised in South Africa.
“All the violence that happens, being victimised by police, is because it operates in a criminalised industry and there is really no recourse by the perpetrators.
“Questions such as ‘what were you doing there’ come up when reporting a crime or that it is impossible to get raped because they are sex workers are becoming frequent. The treatment that sex workers get from the police has become very invasive and goes as far as human rights violation,” she said.
“As a marginalised key population, GBV and other violations are so much more elevated due to lack of freedom to be vocal. You are made accountable for your own violation and the focus is normally on the sex work, and not the crime.”
Speaking about the online service, Lessing said although sex workers really don’t have a choice and have to advertise their services, carries great risk.
“Sex workers, generally, have their own vetting system like alerting each other of any violent client that they come across to help the next person, for instance. But there is a real risk because many of the violations are linked with client violence. Based on the fact that clients know that sex work is criminalised,” she said.