South African women should stand side by side and support the cause of the decriminalisation of sex work. That is an impassioned plea made by the National Movement of Sex Workers in South Africa during a protest march in Durban. The march coincided with commemoration of International Sex Workers Rights Day. Spokesperson, Sindi Mfeka, believes the country’s criminalisation of sex workers highly contributes to the exceptionally high levels of gender based violence, rape and murder of the women plying the trade.
Calling prostituted women “sex workers” is as much a disservice to their liberation as calling slaves who worked on plantations “cotton workers”. We must stop using language that sanitizes and whitewashes the injustice, harm, and exploitative nature of prostitution.
— Laila Mickelwait (@LailaMickelwait) March 6, 2019
For many, sex work is regarded as a morally degrading activity in society. As a result, the ladies of the night are still operating in the dead of night, in secrecy and at times under dangerous circumstances.
Sex workers now want their work to be recognised like any other profession. Scores of women took to the streets of Durban protesting the brutal tactics, verbal abuse and at time sexual assaults often employed by police.
” We were in the streets doing our jobs, it was September 11, 2017 if I’m not mistaken, while I was busy talking with my colleagues, sex workers, and the police van stopped and when we tried to run away they chased and caught us. They then took us to the police station and the following morning they released us to go home, it was just an abuse.
So the decriminalisation of sex workers – its what we have been longing for. If sex work is decriminalised and that means our work will be recognised, our health and human rights protected, if we are free to lay charges, have access to health services at any health facilities.”
My job entails selling my body on the street to make a living, well we get arrested a lot. Metro police especially metro police they harass us and the public do the same.”
Mfeka called for swift justice to be taken against perpetrators of crimes against sex workers and the protection victims of sex abuse.
“So today we are celebrating the international sex workers human rights day. Its celebrated all over the world so what we are doing we are advocating for change in the current law, that is what is happening in South Africa because sex workers are killed on a daily basis and we are pleading with the government to change laws we want to tell our story. There is this Sam Lee case happening on the 11th. She was brutally killed in Durban and burnt beyond recognition. That’s why we are fighting for them. Sex workers are also human beings before I am a sex worker I am a human being and got families to feed. My body should not cost me my life.”
Coordinator of the Coalition of the Decriminalisation of Sex Workers SA, Nothando Mathe, says they have received a huge number of complaints from KZN Sex Workers that include their abuse at the hands of the police.
“The reason for this march is about the human rights and to tell people to stop violating the rights of sex workers. There is a case going on right now, currently, for example the Siam Lee case – she is from Durban north but was found burnt in Newhanover. The other thing which has been happening – the police has been abusing, assaulting and sexually harassed the sex workers especially in KZN – we have received a huge number of complaints that sex workers are living under fearful conditions in KZN.”
Some sex workers say its their personal choice and wish that people would respect their choice and not pity them. However, sex work is still illegal in South Africa, which makes it hard for sex workers to receive health services and lay charges against their abusers who they say are mostly people in authority including the police.