“I’m 34 years old and I do sex work for eighteen years now,” Portia* says. She says she is tired of street work. “I am ready to retire to a big house with a big car. I wish my children to be educated and not do sex work ever. Sex work isn’t easy. But you get used to it. It’s your job.”
For years Portia* worried that her family and children would find out what her real job was. She moved away from home when her mother found out. “Life could be worse. I still look healthy and I’m providing for my kids,” she says.
Amanda* is 36 years old and this is her thirteenth year of sex work. “Hey, sex workers make mistakes like everybody; some use drugs and alcohol and it’s not surprising they get arrested.” She says she hasn’t been harassed by the police for a while as in not this year, but she knows woman sex workers who have. “When I was at the AIDS Conference in Durban [in 2016], this one lady reported how a policeman ordered her to take off her clothes and walk in public if she didn’t want to be arrested.”
Both Portia and Amanda belong to an initiative set up by SWEAT and Sisonke (two organisations campaigning for the decriminalisation of sex work) called Mothers for the Future (M4F). Amanda has twins who are 21 years old. One of them and her 14 year-old live with her former husband in Durban. “He helps to support them,” she says. “My other 21 year- old twin stays with me.”
“I love doing outreach with the children,” she says. “These children, their mothers, were my fellow sisters who passed away from AIDS or other things. They can’t stay with family because of stigma. We at Mothers for the Future help them… . I wish for big funds to look after these children, and also our female sex workers who get sick and stop work.”
For Portia and Amanda sex work has always been their means at a livelihood. Neither of them finished high school, and, because of a lack of work opportunities, decided to do sex work.
“Clients are all races, but most are white. They come from every part of society,” says Portia. She goes on: “Some are nice. It’s not a colour thing. Others are verbally abusive and so I tell them to take back their money. And if they start doing things that are not safe, I tell them “No” and say I will take their car registration number to SWEAT. Some get scared when I say that.” Amanda continues: “Ja. When you reject them, they can leave you stranded on the highway.”
Portia says that it took some time before her daughter was able to say: “You are my mother and I love you no matter what.” She says that SWEAT and Sisonke have helped her and Amanda grow their confidence. “I feel proud I can feed my children and send them to school,” she continues.
Mothers for the Future is the brainchild of Duduzile Dlamini who is a mother, a sex worker, and an advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work. She identified the need for a platform and support group for female sex workers. M4F members are encouraged to do outreach in their communities. This might be in the form of sex education, caring for orphaned children, encouraging other female sex workers to join SWEAT, and helping other members in times of crisis, for example, when they are sick and not earning anything.
Dlamini says she still does sex work in her off hours from SWEAT, where she runs M4F “I have children to support. This is the only way to make extra money. I did sex work fulltime for many years before joining SWEAT.”
“Three years ago, I saw how many children came to the Christmas party at the SWEAT premises, and I decided we had to create a support group. There are thirty of us now in Mothers for the Future,” she says. They share a Creative Space in which they can express themselves through story and song. Dlamini says that many sex workers in South Africa are HIV-positive and M4F ensures the women in the group understand how vital antiretroviral medicines are, that they be taken properly and that regular clinic visits be made.
“As sex workers, we have no legal protection. We are subjected to greater criminal elements. We at SWEAT and Sisonke have made a big difference in recent years. People know about us. And together with Sisonke, we can get women out of jail within three hours,” she says proudly.
“Some clients specifically want pregnant women,” Dlamini tells me. However, without maternity leave and little recourse to social services let alone financial loans, sex workers have no choice but to return to work soon after giving birth.
Dlamini hopes to raise enough funds from the public to rent a home for children who have lost their mothers to illness.
Dlamini is hopeful. “Progress is slow here. But, one by one our parliamentarians are agreeing sex work should be decriminalized!”
* Not their real names
CORRECTION: The incorrect surname for Duduzile Dlamini was used in the original version. This has since been corrected.
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