By Lesley Lanir, Digital Journal
Johannesburg - A sex worker from Zimbabwe thought to have been murdered by a client was found strangled to death with an electric cord at the Ambassador brothel in Hillbrow Johannesburg, South Africa, over the weekend. Her eyes had been plucked out with a coat hanger. I contacted Maria Stacey National Outreach and Development Manager SWEAT (Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce) regarding the incident.
This is a shocking incident but abuse and crimes of all types against sex workers are unfortunately common to us. Her family did not know she was a sex worker so her name cannot be revealed. She worked at a well-known Hillbrow brothel called The Ambassador. I spoke to my colleague Kholi Buthelezi, who is the National Coordinator of the Sisonke Sex Workers Movement. She said there is a traditional belief that the image of the killer is imprinted on the eyes of a murder victim, hence the murderer stabbed her eyes to prevent himself from being identified. The police are investigating.
What does SWEAT do?
SWEAT works to address the health and human rights of South African sex workers. Estimated 130, 000 – 500, 000 sex workers in South Africa out of a population of almost 50 million.
What about HIV and AIDS?
19.8% of all new HIV infections in South Africa are sex work related, however, only 5% have access to comprehensive HIV prevention, treatment care and support according to South Africa’s National AIDS Council (SANAC).
Is sex work a criminal offence in South Africa?
Sex work is criminalised in South Africa and sex workers are subject to stigma and abuse. In recent research conducted in the Eastern Cape for the United Nations Populations Fund UNFPA, sex workers spoke of their experiences at the hands of police; contrary to what many believe, most sex workers are not forced to do the work, and experience less abuse from clients and pimps than from the police. As one sex worker said, ”I have never been abused except by the police.”
How does SWEAT give the sex workers support?
One of the things we do is try to get the women’s stories out there to try to make people understand and see what is happening to young women. So we teach online media through workshops. Sex workers are taught how to make short digital stories about their lives. Topics range from police abuse, to entrapment, to rape, to being a refugee, to male rape, to HIV and relationships.
Was it easy to persuade the sex workers to make these video clips?
Sex workers want other people to know that they are human beings like any other mothers, daughters, girlfriends, wives, members of communities, members of church choirs and so on.
In order to emphasise the dreadful plight of these sex workers- what other examples of abuse can you tell us?
There is another incident that we are involved in at the moment. A sex worker in Booysens, Johannesburg killed her Nigerian pimp. She had been subjected to severe and prolonged abuse by him. He beat her daily, controlled her movements, and took most of the money she earned, leaving her with R10 ($1,50) per day. While she was in hospital as a result of her beating, she resolved to go back and kill him as she believed there was no other way of ending the abuse. After killing him, she ran away to Durban, but later handed herself into the police. She has been transferred back to Johannesburg to await trial. Sisonke will be supporting her and organising legal support.
[This news article was sourced from the Digital Journal: Sex worker strangled to death, eyes poked out]
By Sheila Farmer
This week charges of brothel-keeping against me were dropped. It's enough for two prostitutes to live or work together for us to be illegal. To be within the law we must work alone. After 18 months of campaigning to stop my prosecution, it was suddenly claimed there was not enough evidence to proceed. I think this is because I was on the verge of opening a can of worms and the authorities wanted me to go away.
I didn't plan on becoming a prostitute. I had an abusive and violent childhood leaving me with night terrors and a stammer. As the eldest child I looked after my mother and younger siblings and I learned to be strong. From the age of 11 I worked in a burger bar to pay for bus fares to school, dinner money and school uniform. Like most victims of domestic violence, we had no help to escape.
I became pregnant at 21 and a single parent at 23. I trained to become a computer programmer. This meant leaving the house with my three-year-old at 6.45am arriving home at 7pm and doing three hours' nightly study. It was very hard but it paid off: I got a good job, bought a house, learned to drive and took my son out of poverty.
All this changed when I lost my eyesight in 1992 and developed a brain tumour as a result of childhood diabetes. I rented a flat to work as a prostitute so I could pay my debts. My son became my carer. After surgery I regained some sight in my right eye.
I worked alone. Within months, I was attacked, raped repeatedly, tied up, held hostage, and nearly strangled. I gave evidence against my attacker but he got off. I suffered years of nightmares and panic attacks and decided never to work alone again.
Using my prostitution earnings I trained for five years to become a counsellor, only to have my chances of getting a job scuppered by a CRB check exposing my prostitution.
By this time I was working with friends because it was safer. We kept our own money but jointly paid towards the rent, bills and advertising. We only found out later that it was illegal to work together.
That's when I suffered my second major attack. We were robbed at gunpoint by a gang who had targeted hundreds of flats in the south of England. Most victims would not go to the police for fear of being prosecuted. Despite threats to my life and my flat being petrol bombed, I gave evidence and was commended by the judge for my bravery.
We moved to another flat and within a few months were raided. I was arrested and charged with brothel-keeping. My friend, who is Albanian and was worried about being deported, was pressured into signing a statement.
I decided to fight the case as my tumour is now malignant and my time is running out. Who has a right to judge me? People have sex for all kinds of reasons. My reason was to escape the poverty trap. I've been told that prostitution is degrading and self-abuse, but how many other people feel abused by their jobs?
The English Collective of Prostitutes worked with me on my defence and spearheaded a support campaign. More than 1,000 people wrote to my MP to protest. I spoke at SlutWalk in Trafalgar Square to the cheers of 5,000 people; I spoke at Occupy LSX and on their live stream. I tell my story hoping that other women and men will recognise some of their life in it and support our fight against criminalisation.
The police use trafficking as an excuse to hound prostitutes. But in my experience, victims of trafficking are rare and don't get the support they need. Most working women are like you and me, trying to earn a living. Since the 2002 Proceeds of Crime Act, which allows police to seize our money and our goods, arrests have skyrocketed. The police are just pimping.
I'm relieved not to face trial but angry that I was prosecuted. The government claims it needs to make cuts but squanders huge amounts of money prosecuting women like me.
Duwayne Brooks, Stephen Lawrence's friend, said that the police who were first on the scene treated them as if they were guilty of something. When sex workers report attacks, we face prejudice too. Police may arrest us rather than our attackers. Violent criminals know they can get away with it and attack others, prostitute or not. Don't the police know this, or don't they care?
I should be able to work in the job I choose without being victimised – life is hard enough. Prostitution has been decriminalised in New Zealand: sex workers can go to the police and insist on their right to safety. If such changes were made here it could save many lives. And it could make it easier to leave prostitution if we wanted to.
[This news article was sourced from The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/06/prostitutes-criminalised?newsfeed=true]
Leading South African sex work activist Mickey Meji has just returned home after a hectic fact-finding visit to New Zealand, the first country in the world to decriminalise sex work. During the visit she met with activists, visited five brothels and a needle exchange for intravenous drug users, and held extensive talks with the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC). One of her projects was to participate in making a global DVD on sex work law reform.
New Zealand abandoned its law similar to that now in place in South Africa back in 2003, removing the law which made sex workers and brothel owners into criminals, at the same time instituting tighter penalties for clients engaging with young sex workers, and for coercion into sex work; with obligations on sex workers, clients and operators to practice safer sex. Subsequent evaluation of the law reform shows it to have been a win-win solution, with no increase in the number of sex workers, and with vastly improved relationships between sex workers and the police, and health services, making it easier to address such issues as trafficking.
Mickey said today:
“I had heard and read a lot about the situation facing sex workers in New Zealand, but nothing prepared me for the reality. I came from South Africa, where sex workers are routinely abused and assaulted by police, and driven from health care services by prejudice. I went to New Zealand, where sex workers are treated as full citizens with strong human rights, where Government intervenes to promote sex worker health and safety. I met brothel owners who were extremely keen to abide by the law because the incentives to do that are so strong. And I met clients who were actively supportive of sex worker rights. This has given me new hope and determination that we can and must reform the law here to give dignity to sex workers, save police time and resources, and make it easier for sex workers to access HIV care and prevention”.
Mickey is available to talk to the media, on 084 062 8496