See violence for what it is, regardless of who the victim is: Win The Fight against gender-based violence and femicide against Sex Workers

Exit!, there are not many women and men prostitutes who get the opportunity to exit sex work like Grizelda Grootbom did. Others, like Elma Robyn Montsumi, a 39-year-old sex worker who died in police custody in Mowbrary in April 2020, loose the fight against gender-based violence. There are very few places in the world where sex work is not frowned upon, deemed as immoral, and criminalised. This disapproval of sex work is usually on the basis and justifications of cultural and religious beliefs; beliefs that are imposed on individuals or groups whether they subscribe to them or not. African culture and religion are particularly infamous for justifying the prevention of key populations such as injecting drug users, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, from accessing their rights. Sex workers also fall within the groups of ‘othered’ people. Othering puts people at risk of being marginalised, stigmatised, oppressed and violated. In the main, sex workers face rejection from their families, their communities and society at large. They are often victimised by the police, clients, intimate partners, health care workers, thugs or criminals, and their managers or controllers.

In South Africa, it is illegal to sell or buy sex, yet it is estimated that there are between 131 000 and 182 000 sex workers in the country; that is between 0,76% and 1% of the adult female population. Thousands of women with the constitutional right to live and whose rights are meant to be provided for by international tools such as the Maputo Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s rights in Africa, still experience barriers to accessing safety, health, education, justice and equal protection before the law. In addition to safe clients, research tells us that men who buy sex are mostly those that have criminal history and are likely to be violent; these are the clients that sex workers are forced to negotiate the use of protection with during intercourse. These are clients that see sex workers as nothing more than an item they have purchased; that society looks down upon, and that they may do with as they please. This treatment increases sex workers’ vulnerability to condom stealthing, sexually transmitted infections and diseases in a reality where safe sexual and reproductive health services are often out of their reach. The criminalisation of sex work only exacerbates the violent circumstances under which they work, inversely subjecting sex workers to abuse, harassment and extortion by the police who are mandated to protect them as citizens.

In their trade, managers or controllers, often referred to as “pimps” are very violent towards sex workers as they perceive them to be their “property to let” – often beat them, coerce them into forced abortions, sex work for very little pay if any in return for mostly minimal protection, they are also known to force them into drug use that makes it harder for them to be emancipated from the life of sex work. Like thousands of other women in South Africa, sex workers are also victims of intimate partner and gender-based violence and are reluctant to report their experiences of violence due to the stigma and criminalisation of sex work.

With all odds seemingly stacked against sex workers, it may appear highly unlikely that someone would willingly do this kind of work. Though, there are women, men and non-binary people, by their own autonomy and choosing, that go into sex work. Sex workers make a living – pay bills, put themselves through school, support their families, etc. Sex work is their work, it is an exchange of sexual services for payment and they widely hold the perception that it is the best option that they have. Regardless, all sex workers confront similar challenges and violations as those that do this work because they feel they have no other choice due to high underemployment and unemployment rates in the country or are abducted and forced into the sex slave trade.

Sex workers themselves have varying reservations about sex work because of its precarious nature. Decriminalisation of sex work, however, could help promote an environment that realises and protects the health and human rights of sex workers, making them less prone to violence and the harmful power dynamics that exist when one is considered to be lesser. When you disempower someone, you do not only take away their power from external influences, you take away their power from within themselves.

Try if you may, to imagine a world where there are no labels placed on sex workers – a world where they are not raped because they choose to sell sex; where they are provided access to health and legal services so that they are able to prevent unwanted pregnancies, HIV infection and other STIs; where they are able to have healthy relationships with family and community members because they experience and are faced with the same fears and oppressions, and more; where they are able to report injustices committed against them with confidence in the law. We can Win The Fight against the violation of sex workers if we fight for a world where we acknowledge violence for what it is, regardless of whom it is perpetrated against and what they do to make a living – because they are human.

By Mzikazi Nduna and Oyama Tshona
Mzi Nduna is a gender trainer, researcher and facilitator. She writes academically and non-academically. She is a scholar of note and consults widely in the field of gender and development.
Oyama Tshona is a Gender and Human Rights Blogger, Thetha Ntombi!.
She is a researcher and trainer with a focus on issues that affect adolescent girls, young women and sexual minorities.