Statement: SWEAT and Sisonke – Impact of GBVF on Sex Workers

The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and Sisonke, the National Movement of Sex Workers add our voices to many others calling on government to act decisively on the escalating rate gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) in South Africa. Much has been said about the ‘surge’ in GBV cases in SA since the lockdown and the horrific murders of women across the country, but the Coronavirus pandemic and lockdown only amplified the violence meted out to the women in this country. In late 2019 the country responded with shock and anger at the murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana among many others. SWEAT was at the front of the mass protests that happened in Cape Town and around the country, we hoped that the mass risings and subsequent government response might finally signal a turnaround in the crisis. Since that time however the list of victims has only increased and women in South Africa continue to live in fear.

Women sex workers are 18 times more likely to be murdered than any other woman and the violence that sex workers experience is pervasive, be it :  violent clients, intimate partner violence, police brutality or stigmatisation. We have recorded many cases since the start of the lockdown. These are just a selection

Eastern Cape: Sex work and stigma

#SayHerName: Thuliwe Marele

Thuliwe Marele was brutally beaten to death on 7 June 2020 by a mob who reportedly found out that she was a sex worker and labelled her a “witch”.  Originally from East London, she was living in Motherwell and worked in the Motherwell/Wells Estate area in Port Elizabeth. She had one child. 

Harassment of sex workers by communities can be malicious – reports of dogs being set on them; verbal abuse and being chased from certain areas are regularly reported. In our most recent #SayHerName Report (2018-19), we make mention of several cases where discrimination and stigmatisation has lead to killing and/or mutilation of sex workers, because of the negative associations communities have of sex workers they are often seen as a social ill or sign of moral decay within their communities.

Criminalisation of sex work feeds the violence and stigmatisation sex workers are facing. It provides legal backing to the discrimination and violence targeting sex workers who are simply trying to work to support themselves and feed their families. We call on this government to make good on their promise to decriminalise sex work immediately.

SWEAT’s East London office hosted a memorial to celebrate Thuliwe Marele’s life, her courage and vibrancy while also demanding justice for her death.

An investigation into her murder is ongoing and if you have information about Thuliwe’s murder, please contact Sergeant Nikelo on 060 403 6582.

Limpopo: Intimate Partner Violence

A 29-year old mother of two children from Dikgale in Polokwane, was beaten to death by her boyfriend in late April this year. We can report that an arrest has been made. Her family is still trying to come to terms with what happened, and it also became clear that they were not aware prior to her death that she was doing sex work. It is for this reason we decided not to share personal details of her. It is not unusual for sex workers to hide their work from their families and it is tragic that even after their passing their friends and co-workers have to maintain that secret, this is the cost of stigmatisation paid by sex workers.

The impact COVID19 and the lockdown has on GBV cases is huge. Lifeline reported a 500% increase in GBV cases toward the end of May this year. Before the widely reported murders of Tshegofatso Pule, Naledi Phangindawo, Nompumelelo Tshaka and many others recently, the National GBV Hotline reported over 80 000 calls within the first few weeks of the lockdown.

The challenges sex workers face during this pandemic are wide and far reaching. They are unable to earn a living and provide for their most basic needs such as pay rent, provide food; pay school fees; profiling and harassment by the police, etc. The intimate partner violence sex workers experience often bears down to violence because they do sex work and violence because their abusers are dependent on the money from sex work. While we do not have specific details around her death yet, we know a young mother died a brutal death – endemic to the brutality inflicted on the women of this country daily.

KZN: Policing

On 12 May 2020 seven people died instantly in an accident involving a single vehicle on the Umgeni flyover, which joins the M19 highway just before 6am in the morning. An eighth person later died in hospital. Four women and four men died that day and while not much else was reported in the media, reports soon reached SWEAT that the women were sex workers.

“CJ”, Nomfundo and Thandeka [pseudonyms they sometimes used] were identified and laid to rest in the days following the accident, but it took almost three weeks for the fourth to be identified.  SWEAT and Sisonke site coordinators followed up on clues about her identity as best they could under lockdown regulations. The reason for this difficulty soon became shockingly clear – she was a minor and is reported to have been only 15 years old at the time of her death. Through few people we could find who had contact with her prior to her death we learned of the conflicting stories she gave about her age and where she was from trying not to be detected. We eventually learnt that she was a runaway, originally from iXhobo, but lived in and operated from the Umbilo area. She was laid to rest in iXhobo.

At first reported as an accident where the driver simply lost control, accounts started coming in that all four were picked up around 4am in Umbilo and got in the vehicle with, presumably four clients. At some point police flagged the vehicle, but the driver refused to stop. A chase ensued and the police opened fire on the vehicle and the car overturned. While we do not know the exact circumstances that led to the shooting, the mere fact that the deaths of eight people in a police shooting could go entirely unreported is shocking to us.

As with the ongoing case of Robyn Montsumi in Cape Town, sex worker deaths and violations where the police are involved can be extremely risky. Sex workers face extreme levels of violence from clients, intimate partners and at the hands of the police. In our research, the police remain the most consistent and systemic source of abuse in terms of physical violence, sexual violence, and human rights violations. Practices include arbitrary arrests and “punishment”, condom confiscation as “proof of solicitation”, made up documentation to aid in extortion, etc. Apparently, a police internal investigation was launched into the accident. In truth, we have very little faith in such processes. The system allows the police to investigate themselves and naturally find themselves to be without blame. We have no details on the four men who died in the accident.

SWEAT and Sisonke at memorial service at the accident scene in KZN: 2 July 2020

KZN: Victimisation of Sex Worker activists

On the weekend of the 27th June SWEAT and Sisonke employees and members attended a march against GBV in Durban. They at all times adhered to restrictions and regulations around social distancing and safety. The police showed up and began to break up the protest, it soon became clear that only protesters wearing SWEAT or Sisonke branded clothing were being arrested, despite numerous other organisations being present. They were told the march was illegal, but there was no explanation given as to why they were the only ones arrested. They were bundled into a police van – 14 people cramped in a small space with no social distancing possible. After inquiries as to why the organisers of the march were not arrested if it was deemed illegal, the police returned and arrested others at the march. Soon after they let everyone go with a “warning”. We are also aware that questioning the police very often leave sex workers and those living on the streets vulnerable to increased harassment.

We urgently call on government to act immediately to end the scourge of GBV facing our country. We demand that they fast track the implementation of the NSP of GBV with all its recommendations. That police oversite mechanisms are strengthened and lockdown conditions are not used as an excuse to sweep police misconduct under the carpet. Finally, we call for the government to immediately follow through on their commitment to the full decriminsalisation of adult sex work.