“If it’s work, then why do we have to hide our identity? If it’s a choice, why is it always the choice of poor and black women? To consider it as work is actually giving up on those who are oppressed and exploited within this system. We didn’t choose prostitution.”
So said director of Kwanele Movement, Mickey Meji, at the launch of the coalition of abolition of prostitution by Embrace Dignity – a South African, feminist, abolitionist and human rights advocacy NGO that aims to challenge gendered power inequalities that continue to oppress women and girls through prostitution, sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.
The Gardens-based NGO gave birth to the survivor-led Kwanele movement – which advocates for legal and social change to end prostitution. Kwanele means “enough” in Xhosa.
Survivor Hilda Tlou said she was raised by a single mother and didn’t even have a place she could call home.
“I was 9 years old when my stepfather raped me all in the name of ‘love’. Years after that, men have taken advantage of me because I was vulnerable and poor,” she said.
Ms Tlou said her daughter was assaulted by people in her hometown, Mbombela, because of the work that she was doing.
“She was only 10 years old and cried for days, asking what kind of work was I doing? Why was she being punished? I couldn’t tell her the truth. I was ashamed. How can a mother look their child in the eyes and tell them that they are a prostitute?”
She said she’s been tortured and raped sometimes by police officers.
“Some men would rape me and dump me in the middle of nowhere.”
She said she lost her identity.
“I often wondered if one day something would happen to me while I’m on the streets. Who would’ve known Michelle? Thank God for Embrace Dignity, I’m now known as Hilda Tlou,” she said.
Ms Tlou said although she was a survivor she was still living with the scars.
“I can’t even count the number of men that I’ve slept with. I can’t even tell which one infected me with HIV.”
She said she didn’t recognise prostitution as work and said parents needed to encourage their children to strive for better.
“I had a mother who would not even ask me where I got money to buy things – instead she’d ask for more. I don’t want my daughters to go through the same.
“The damage that men caused is enough. Kwanele. Men with money take advantage of poor and hungry women. When you are hungry and motivated by your stomach you will do anything,” she said.
Another survivor, Nompumelelo Lindikhaya, said she was in prostitution for more than 10 years and started while in matric.
“My mother was drowning in debt, having lost her two sons, and I had to intervene. We were on the brink of losing our home, and with no experience, poverty drove me into prostitution,” she said.
Ms Lindikhaya said most of the women she had been trapped with were no more.
“I was raped by a police officer, and I couldn’t even report him because who was I? A prostitute, and I had to deal with it,” she said.
She said she had to take drugs to deal with the different men on Voortrekker Road, with some coming to them with their own issues, and it was not easy.
“No one chooses prostitution, it’s the circumstances that drove us there. You can’t say no when you’re hungry. I had dreams. I wanted to be a social worker, but prostitution took that away from me,” she said.
She said society would say they chose that life.
“I had to stand in the dark corners of Voortrekker Road to hide. How can you hide something that you chose? I’d stand on those streets, wondering if I would even come back home every day. If it weren’t for Embrace Dignity, I wouldn’t be here. With this movement, I know this is my duty to save those who are still trapped. I want to protect those who are not yet harmed and prevent it from happening,” she said.
Ms Meji said they all had different stories but there were similarities. She said it had only been in 2017 that she learned that she had been molested at the age of 4.
“Initially, I thought it happened when I was 9 years old,” she said.
She said she had been looking for a job when a man had stopped and offered her money for “business”.
“Thirty minutes later, I was R550 richer and during that time, that was money,” she said.
She said she had only planned to stay for a few months until her family had paid their debts.
“Nine years later, I found myself still stuck in the system. It’s easier to get in than to get out,” she said.
Ms Meji said she realised that they lost value every day.
“What kind of work is that? When you work, the more experience you gain, the more you will be valued. With prostitution, you’d get in a man’s car and you tell them you’re in your 30s and that is a reason for him to pay you only R1. He gets mad and he wants to hear that you’re 22 or 24 and you just started last week, which creates the demand for young girls,” she said.
She said one of her fingers doesn’t bend because she had tried to fight a man who tried to slit her throat.
“I call this Kwanele Movement the movement of the survivors because having been there, we’ve survived a lot.
“Many of our sisters have died at the hands of men who bought us for their instant sexual gratification and the pigs who sold us for money. I can’t undo that damage, but I’ll do anything to ensure that this doesn’t happen to the next generation,” she vowed.
For more about Embrace Dignity, call 0870953086, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.embracedignity.org.za