/ 6 January 2010

Sex workers set sights on 2010

Rustenburg sex worker Tshepiso Khoza* is hoping to get off the street with the money she makes from the Soccer World Cup later this year.

“I am looking at pounds and dollars, I want to quit after the World Cup,” said the 23-year-old, who plies her trade on Heystek Street — Rustenburg’s red-light district.

The 15 women who work on the street are united in their hope that 2010 will bring them financial security. Before the final draw in 2009, the women eagerly waited to hear which teams would be playing in Rustenburg, so they could charge those fans their home currency and exchange it on the black market.

It was still unclear if sex work would be decriminalised during the tournament, but the women were in no doubt “tricks” would continue.

Khoza, like most of her friends, turned to sex work to earn a living and support her six-year-old brother.

“This has been my job for six years. It is my first job. I dropped out of school after the death of my parents to take care of my brother.”

Without work experience or a high school education, she went job hunting, to no avail.

“A friend told me about a job where experience and education were not a prerequisite. I was shocked at first but learned to live with it.”

On her first night she took home R350. The money increased as she learned to negotiate with her clients.

“The lowest charge is R50. You must negotiate with a client for a better amount. We see rich people here. There is no point getting laid for R50 while he drives the latest car in the market.”

Khoza and the other women warm themselves around a fire at night while waiting for clients. The dimly-lit street is littered with empty alcohol bottles.

Each tries to help the other as much as possible, but once a client arrives and they get into a car, they’re on their own.

The women arrive for work at about 6pm and some, if business is not good, only leave at about 6am the next morning.

The street is demarcated into blocks, one each for Xhosas, Sothos, Indians and whites.

“You must inform the other ladies when you hop into their territory or else they will take your money,” Khoza said.

In her career on street corners, she has seen how sex workers have been assaulted and robbed, arrested and raped in prison.

“The police are also harassing us. It’s either they want a quickie or you are arrested and forced to pay a spot fine.”

Perks outweigh dangers
According to Khoza, while street sex-work is more dangerous than being in a brothel, the perks outweigh the dangers.

“It is risky but you have the benefit of working your own hours and the money is all yours. In a brothel it is safe but you take less home.”

She once plied her trade at a brothel and was fined a percentage of her takings if she arrived late for work or disagreed with a client on the service he wanted.

“I quit and came to the street.”

KB* (19) who has been on the streets for two years, works on the same strip as Khoza. The lure of the money and the encouragement of her friends made her decide to become a sex worker. Her parents, from Bapong near Brits, think KB is studying at the University of South Africa.

Asked what she intends to tell her parents when she finally returns home, she said they are uneducated and she will make up “a career”.

“I hope before they find out they will be dead,” she slurred, the smell of alcohol on her breath.

Many of the sex workers, speaking as expensive cars slowly cruised by, said they took drugs and alcohol to numb themselves.

The majority of them were not ashamed of their work, perhaps inspired by Martin Luther Junior when he said: “When you sweep the street, sweep it like nobody else will do it.”

New debate
Legal experts have already suggested proposals to legalise prostitution in 2009, saying police would be freed to focus on serious crime instead of petty vice — a position that has won support among some police officials.

Kim, a 35-year-old transgendered sex-worker from Cape Town, is familiar with the challenges of prostitution in South Africa, where reports of bribery and rape by police and other human rights violations are rife.

“I think [decriminalisation] would benefit sex workers. At the moment sex work is not being recognised as a career and sex workers’ human rights are being violated,” she said.

Kim is homeless, and addicted to Mandrax and crystal meth, but she sees herself as a “social worker” after 11 years in the industry, and is looking forward to the extra arrivals during the World Cup.

Advocates for sex workers say that the existing system simply allows criminals to regulate the trade.

“Currently the way it would take place in the World Cup — it would be regulated by criminals. It is a window of opportunity for criminals,” said Eric Harper, director of the Sex Workers’ Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat).

The Justice Ministry’s Law Reform Commission has proposed possible options, including a blanket decriminalisation or a new system allowing government to regulate the trade.

Researcher Dallene Clark said the commission’s work was not tied to the World Cup, but was part of a 10-year review of South Africa’s sexual-offences law.

“We are not at all influenced by 2010. While one has to be cognisant of it, one is looking at a long-term solution appropriate for South Africa.”

Leading among the arguments against decriminalisation are fears of an increase in human trafficking, and an even greater Aids risk in a country where five million of the 48-million population have HIV.

“Research tends to show that prostitutes [especially women] are more vulnerable to infection than their clients, and are often unable to insist on safe sex practices,” the Law Reform Commission said in a report.

Hierarchy of victims
The Institute of Security Studies said in a report in 2008 that sex work should be decriminalised and regulated by the same labour legislation as other sectors of the economy.

Senior ISS researcher Chandre Gould told media in Pretoria at the launch of the Selling Sex in Cape Town study that the only “rational” conclusion to be drawn was to decriminalise their occupation.

“The criminalisation of sex work means that the industry is unregulated, and this creates conditions that allow employers to engage in practices that would be considered unacceptable for other kinds of employment,” a summary of the study said.

The study showed that while there was evidence of human trafficking of prostitutes it was not widespread or a “significant feature”.

Eight women — of the 164 interviewed — had experienced trafficking-like practices. However almost all of these had happened in the past. The study acknowledged that some women may have escaped its notice.

“While sex workers are often subject to exploitative or abusive working conditions, very few [in Cape Town] are forced to sell sex,” said the report.

Gould said that some sex workers chose the line of employment while others had been coerced, grossly exploited or easily deceived — a type of “hierarchy of victims” had been set up.

“It sets up victims who need help and victims who don’t,” she said. – Sapa, AFP

* Not their real names