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 

Day Seven | Remember Sex Workers during the 16 Days

Ntokozo Yingwana (Wits University) and Lunga Luthuli (Sisonke)

Seven Ntokozo

Image of a person carrying one of the #SayHerName campaign placards, by – and used with the permission of – the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce

Sex work can simply be understood as the exchange of sexual services for some form of monetary value. More officially, UNAIDS (2001) defines sex work as “any agreement between two or more persons in which the objective is exclusively limited to the sexual act and ends with that, and which involves preliminary negotiations for a price”. 

Under Act 23 of the Sexual Offences Act (SOA) of 1957, sex work is fully criminalised in South Africa. The Act is a remnant of the apartheid regime’s Immorality Act of 1927, which criminalised sexual interactions across racial lines; specifically prohibiting sex between Black (African, Indian and Coloured) and White (Afrikaner and European) people. In 2007, the law was amended to include the purchasing of sex – until then, only the selling of sex had been criminalised. Currently the sex worker, client and anyone living off the earnings of a sex worker is considered a criminal. However, since it is difficult to prosecute someone for engaging in sex work (unless caught in the act), authorities tend to rely on entrapment, and municipal by-laws such as loitering, to arrest sex workers.


Selling sex in South Africa

South Africa’s unemployment rate went up during the second quarter of this year from 27% to 29% (of a total population of about 58 million), and is most notable amongst Black African women, who form approximately 35% of this overall national unemployment statistic. Therefore, poverty is still highly feminised and racialised in South Africa. It should then not be surprising that, under these socio-economic conditions, many Black women turn to sex work as the only (or most) viable option for making a living. 

According to a 2013 sex worker population size estimate study, there are approximately 153,000 sex workers in South Africa, with about 138,000 being women (which amounts to nearly 0.9% of the country’s female population), and most of whom are Black. Around 70% are street-based. 

In addition, according to the Gould & Fick 2008 study sex workers with a primary school education are able to earn nearly six times more doing sex work than they would from formal labour such as domestic work. On average, female sex workers support around four dependents, while their male colleagues about two. The same study also notes that the average age of debut into sex work is 24 years, with the average length of stay in the industry being 12 years.

Why decriminalisation?


Cover of SWEAT’s #SayHerName Report 2014-2017, reproduced with the permission of SWEAT

During 2014 to 2017, the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and the South African national movement of sex workers called Sisonke (meaning ‘we are together’ in isiZulu) received reports of 118 cis- and transgender women sex workers who had died as a result of violence. These were compiled into the SWEAT #SayHerName report, which noted that more than 50% of the deaths reported during this period were the result of murder. Of the reported murders, many of the deceased had also been sexually assaulted. Indeed, most of the documented killings included acts of severe brutality; such as repeated stab wounds, mutilations, acid burns and even decapitation.

Another recent (2019) study by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) ‘documents how the criminalisation of sex work fuels human rights violations against sex workers, including by police officers, and undermines their right to health’. HRW interviewed 46 women currently working as sex workers in the country, with about 75% reporting having been arrested more than once. One woman explained:

Usually (the fine is) R100 South African Rand (US$7) or R200 ($14). I get a receipt, it would say ‘gambling’ or ‘being on the streets’, or ‘urinating on the streets.’ But they arrest me because they know I am a sex worker, and because they find me at the hot spot. – Ranilwe Mola, Tzaneen-based sex worker, May 2018 (HRW 2019: 33).

In some instances, sex workers are even arrested just for being in possession of one too many condoms; a preventative mechanism to help fight the HIV/Aids pandemic in the country. South Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV at an estimated 7 million, which is about a fifth of persons living with the virus globally (SANAC 2018). In addition, when the (predominantly male) police enforce criminalisation, there is often a gender bias; they tend to detain the sex worker (or ask for sexual favours in exchange for being released), while letting the client go on a warning (or bribe).


South Africa: Decriminalise Sex Work

So while the world commemorates the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, we urge you to also remember that sex workers in South Africa remain marginalised, abused and, all too often, killed because of criminalisation. Our government’s lack of response and regressive engagement on the issue of decriminalisation further perpetuates and prolongs the suffering of sex workers. 

Decriminalisation of sex work would help create safe working conditions for adult consenting sex workers to operate under. It would also enable sex workers to report the abovementioned violations, and freely access basic social, legal and primary health care services without stigma and discrimination. Ultimately, it would afford sex workers equal access to labour and human rights, as all. To find out more about SWEAT, Sisonke and how you can support the struggle for sex workers’ rights in South Africa visit our website.

Ntokozo Yingwana is a doctoral researcher at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), Wits University.

Lunga Luthuli is the membership and communication officer for Sisonke