Women are forced into sex work because of poverty

You would have to be living on a different planet not to know that government has gazetted the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill for public comment.

The bill proposes repealing the current legislation that makes sex work a crime and one of the key activities is the finalisation of the legislative process to decriminalise sex work as it pertains to the Sexual Offences Act, 1957 (Act No. 23 of 1957) and the Sexual Offences Amendment Act, 2007 (Act No. 32 of 2007). I am not going to go into details on the bill for it is a very sensitive topic to me but like many, I have my opinions on sex work.

I guess we all have heard tales of the rich and elite using their wealth and power to look down on the poor and those who they want to use in any form. Sex workers are no different. They have felt the brunt of not only the rich but the poor as well. The sad part is that some of these abuses are done just for the sake of demeaning.

My contact with sex workers was between 2007/8 while I was a journalism intern at the public broadcaster, the SABC. Here I was, fresh from the technikon full of ideas of all sorts.

It was summer time and we were all called to submit our ideas/diaries. Everybody said what they were working on and I was the last one. Mhlekazi uthini wena? asked my editor, the late Vusi Sithole.

Remember I was starting to know and understand the big city of Johannesburg. My response was simple: I am checking on sex workers and how they make money during December. My reasoning was that during this time most people go on vacation (outside of the city) not knowing many are also flocking to Jozi during this time.

The whole newsroom laughed at me. How are you going to handle them because these people will be going about their business and you might be moered, they wanted to know.

That floored me for a while but I said, allow me to go Bra Vusi and see what will happen. The soft-spoken Bra Vusi smiled and said remember you’ll need protection but go mfanakiti.

The next day I was in Hillbrow with my tape recorder, a book and pen. If you know Hillbrow, you know how the place is. The sisters were standing next to the flats. They were asking each man passing by to come buy. I was also asked but hey, I was at work.

It was really difficult to ask them for an interview but later I called one of the women aside. I guess she thought I was a client. I smiled and said, look I am a journalist; I am here because there are discussions about decriminalising sex work and I’m here to find out how you feel about it. She jumped and called the others. I was scared for a moment. She explained the news to the others and said this is a journalist and he has just confirmed that we would be decriminalised. Inside me I was like, but I never said that. Anyway they all wanted to be first in line to speak.

I took out my tape recorder and just let them talk without even asking a question. They told me about the safety risks, the serious trauma they have to go through, domestic abuse, the suffering and crime.

I then turned to one mother and asked others to go if they were happy with their answers. I started the real interview with this individual. The first question was, what brought you here, you are a decent mother by the look of things? I said. Wow! She responded by pointing at a corner first. She said, “Look there, that man is my husband. He is my security guard.” I was shocked.

She continued: “You see bhuti, we are a family of four, including our children. My husband is unemployed. The other day we had nothing to eat, nothing bhuti and the children were crying. I sat my husband down and said to him, you know papa we can make business and have a house that we want, educate our children, feed them and even invest our money. But that will happen only if we sit and decide.”

She said she told him that she is prepared to go and prostitute herself.

You can imagine how I felt. I am a soft-hearted person. I felt her pain but still could not understand a man who would allow his wife to prostitute herself.

To get to the gist of this matter, I am happy and overwhelmed that Justice and Constitutional Development Minister Ronald Lamola revisited the topic. It is old – it should have been resolved years back. If it was up to me, it would have been fully in law by now. Women are forced into sex work because of many things, poverty being number one.

While government is dilly-dallying on the issue, sex workers are exposed to dangers. They are exposed to criminals and it is hard to report these crimes to the police. The police are also sometimes a threat to them; that we know.

Amending current legislation will allow the industry to shape itself and the soaring rates of rape and assault would be minimised.

All in all, sex workers as a marginalised group deserve to be given a voice but most importantly, the right to do their work (safely).