DAY FIFTEEN: Playing politics to get sex workers’ rights on the agenda

Playing politics: so what do you do to get your voice heard – as a small South African sex workers rights advocacy organisation -during an election campaign? Run for President!

Picture above: ‘Campaign’ materials for SWAG. Reproduced by permission

Ishtar Lakhani

Studies show that female sex workers are 18 times more likely to be murdered than other women. As a result of criminalisation, stigma and discrimination, sex workers are unable to report violence perpetrated against them by clients, law enforcement officials and members of the community. Criminalisation also increases risk of violence as sex workers have to work in isolation far from the reach of healthcare and justice services and have no access to labour protection for the work that they do. As sex worker rights activists in South Africa we decided that the best way to ensure that sex workers and their issues are represented in political spaces, was to create our own sex worker-led party, as the saying goes, nothing about us, without us. 

It is 2019, time for South Africa’s general election. The media is bloated with the usual pre-election diet of scandal, corruption, and political statements. I am in a meeting having the usual vent about the state of our nation with a collection of social justice activists. Many of the organisations represented in the room have decided to lay low until the election is over, reasons being: “trying to get the media to cover anything that isn’t election related right now is useless” and “what’s the use of lobbying, in 3 months’ time we’ll have start again with new people?”. I understand these approaches. Given the serious lack of resources experienced by social justice organisations, it is essential to pick your battles wisely. It is necessary to be strategic on when, where, how and on what you deploy your ever-shrinking reserves of energy, time and money.

However, we at the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) saw the 2019 South African National Elections as a prime opportunity to deploy our creative activism. 

At SWEAT (a South African based human rights non-profit), a core part of the work is advocating for the full decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa. This position is supported by rigorous research, international human rights frameworks, and most importantly, by people who sell sex themselves, so I will not dive deeply into why you should support decriminalisation. Merely to say, if you support human rights, you should support decriminalisation. Now back to the elections. 

We asked ourselves: in a pre-election context, how do little-old-us gain access to these influential spaces and people? We certainly did not have access to the kind of money needed to buy a plate at political fundraisers. None of us had any desire to learn how to play golf. And we did not have the patience or moral ambiguity to implement the long-game strategy of joining a political party, rising through the ranks and eventually become president. So, we thought: if we can’t beat them, join them. 

The idea of a sex worker for president is not new. Emboldened by the story of Gabriela Leite, the first sex worker to run for Brazilian Congress in 2010, we decided to start our own sex worker-led political party. SWAG, the Sex Worker Action Group (to be perfectly honest, we chose the acronym before we chose the name because who doesn’t like a good acronym?). Now that we had a name, we could really start organising. But when we looked at what it would take to formally register SWAG, the wind was quickly taken out of our sails. None of us had the stamina to climb Mount Bureaucracy. We looked back on our campaign objective: to put sex workers rights on the political agenda. Surely we didn’t have to have an “officially” recognised political party to do that? And so we decided to confidently ignore and navigate ourselves around Mount Bureaucracy. We created a logo and campaign badges, t-shirts and posters (a campaign isn’t a campaign until you have SWAG). We placed our realistic political party posters up on lamp posts directly under our oppositions. With the help of social media we only needed a handful of posters strategically placed and photographed at multiple angles to give the illusion we had national coverage. We even filmed a low budget but surprisingly convincing campaign video, complete with our candidate shaking hands with hard working people, kissing babies, and saying inspiring one-liners like “Your Rights, Your Freedom, Your SWAG”. 

Video above: SWAG campaign 2019. Source: Youtube.

So, what did all this “fun and games” really achieve one might ask? Firstly (and importantly), it was enormous fun. When you are involved in the serious work of human rights activism, there is very little frivolity and burnout is common. This campaign gave us and our organisation a much needed energy boost. Secondly, people believed the campaign!

We were caught off-guard at the amount of support we received. This led to conversations, platforms and events where we could talk about the rights of sex workers in South Africa.

It became abundantly clear that South Africans were hungry for something different and more progressive than we had given them credit for. Finally, one of the biggest impacts of our SWAG Campaign was that the 2 largest opposition political parties both included the rights of sex workers as an issue that needs addressing in their election manifestos, something that has never been done before.

Image reproduced by permission of SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce)

This Campaign showed us what we could really achieve with a passion for human rights, a little bit of money, and a lot of SWAG. 2024, watch this space! 

Ishtar Lakhani is a feminist, activist and trouble maker in the field of social justice advocacy. Her passion lies in using creative activism to advocate for the rights of sex workers and the full decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa.

You can find her on twitter @IshtarLakhani