Sex workers and civil society groups across Africa took to the streets on Thursday to demand access to health care services and an end to the violation of their human rights.
Several African countries held marches including Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe to mark International Sex Workers’ Rights Day. In South Africa, people marched in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Mussina.
The march was led by the Sex Workers’ Education and Advocacy Task Force (Sweat) and Sisonke Sex Workers Movement, which are organisations that seek to ensure human rights for sex workers.
In Johannesburg, protesters marched from the Workers’ Library Museum. Many wore masks to protect themselves from being stigmatised, said national director of Sisonke, Kholi Buthelezi.
The marchers met with police at the Johannesburg Central Police Station to present a memorandum.
Concerns raised in the memorandum were concerning police brutality against sex workers, sexual offences committed by police and also a plea to investigate some of the crimes committed by police. “Today, for the first time in South Africa, we are voicing our cry to the police men who torture us and who abuse us,” said one protester.
“Sex workers are always subjected to human rights violation and have expressed that they are tired of being punching bags of police, clients and more often the hotel managers,” said a member of Sisonke.
“It is really hard for us out there as everyday we are confronted with insults, people calling us magosha [prostitute] or isifebe [bitch]. Today we are saying enough is enough,” said Buthelezi.
Shocked and saddened
Many of the sex workers are still upset about the death of their colleague, who died from the injuries of an assault by a hotel manager in Hillbrow, but were too afraid to report it. “We visited her in December and encouraged her to lay a charge, [but] in February we heard she was dead,” recalls one of her colleagues.
Sex workers in Limpopo also called on the police and society to respect sex workers’ means of survival, and recognise sex work as a form of employment.
“We will no longer be silenced — human rights are for everyone,” said Mickey Meji, the local African Sex Workers’ Alliance coordinator.
“Today I feel proud that sex workers for the first time in South Africa took to the streets and their voices will be heard, not just by the police but also the public who dehumanise us,” said one of the sex workers in Johannesburg.