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SOUTH AFRICA: ‘My Body, My Business’: Sex Workers Seek Protection from the Law

Nathalie Rosa Bucher

CAPE TOWN, Mar 6 2009 (IPS) - The steps of the Cape Town High Court, a frequent site of protest, have seen it all, but Mar. 6, was the first time, sex workers openly stood up for their rights there.

Twenty protesters – mainly women, but including a few men – defiantly held up banners and placards, a few covered their faces behind paper masks. The placards demanded “Human rights for everyone” and an end to harassment by the police. Earlier in the day, a middle-aged woman preceded the protesters, brandishing a banner: “Prostitution destroys Marriage”.

Inside the High Court, Advocate Wim Trengove, on behalf of the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), put forward an application for an interdict against the Minister of Safety and Security.

“I’d like to see rights for sex workers,” said Jody*, 34, who has been working in the industry on and off for 15 years, when asked about the application for an interdict. “We’re all human, we deserve our human rights. We’re not criminals, we don’t steal, we work.”

Jody said she had seen a number of her colleagues arrested, police demanding freebies and charges laid by sex workers always being chucked out of court.

“Sex workers are not informed about what they are arrested for… An arrested person should be informed of the cause of the arrest and the arresting officer must apply his mind to give a label to the crime and not argue later for something different as that means the arrest was unlawful,” Advocate Trengove stated.

He went on to assert that loitering, one of the most frequent reasons provided for arrest, was based on speculation and old by-laws and hence unlawful.

“The police often don’t open a docket yet continue to arrest. This is a revolving door. They clearly know the purpose of the harassment, ” Trengove remarked in his closing statement.

In response, Advocate Ismail Jamie, who appeared for the Safety and Security Minister as well the commanders of four Cape Town police stations, said that neither the South African Police Services (SAPS) nor the city police had control over prosecution decisions.

“It would be legally irresponsible to stop the police from doing its job,” Advocate Jamie argued.

According to Vivienne Lalu, SWEAT advocacy officer, the application for the interdict is the result of many failed attempts at improving sex workers’ situation. “We’ve tried for years to find remedies but it all failed,” Lalu said. “This is not about a few rogue cops, this is endemic, complaints are coming in from across the country,” Lalu underlined.

Among the sex workers protesting outside the court was Zee*, 30, holding a banner reading “My Body, My Business”. The mother of three describes herself as a sex worker and activist. Fittingly, on her t-shirt was a quote by Rosa Luxemburg: “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom fro the one who thinks differently.”

After running away from home at the age of 13, Zee – who now works in a club – was forced into sex work on the streets. She has been raped and gang-raped numerous times since the age of 14. Only once did she report a rape to the police.

“Police used to beat me up and I was once kept in custody for four days over Easter and refused water to wash,” Cym*, 35, who used to occasionally work as a sex worker and is now a peer educator with SWEAT said. “I used to be arrested by the Metro Police for being a public nuisance, trafficking or loitering,” Cym recalled.

One of the obvious effects of widespread harassment, Lalu said, is that sex workers, especially the more vulnerable street-based sex workers, who were held in custody or had their earnings taken by gangsters or police, had to play catch up.

“Sex workers are part of the informal economy, they earn daily income. After paying fines they have to work double as hard,” she said. “Sex workers don’t trust police services even if they are the victims of crime, they don’t report it as they mistrust the police.”

Finding himself unemployed, Bobby*, 31 saw no other option than to “sell himself”. He has been working as a sex worker in bars around the city for two years. “I’ve had terrible experiences with the police,” he said. “They lock you up, they make you pay fines of R50 (just under $5), they don’t pay for sex, they chase you, accuse us of trespassing and call us by names. When you come to the police for help, they laugh at you,” Bobby said.

Asked what the sex workers hoped to get out of the court application, both Cym and Bobby said they hoped that sex work would ultimately be decriminalised and legalised. Lalu added that the purpose of SWEAT’s case was to try and find relief for sex workers under a criminalised system.

In response to a question posed on the subject of police violence against sex workers, Safety and Security Minister Nathi Mthethwa on Thursday said that policemen were not above the law.

“Nobody has the right to violate anybody’s rights… that includes the police,” he told a media briefing in Pretoria. “The mentality of skop, skiet en donder’ (literally “kick, shoot and thunder” in Afrikaans) is not part of the new dispensation,” he said.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

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