1. Home
  2. Africa
  3. Southern Africa

Migrants find sex trade a dead end street

[South Africa] Sex-worker.
Street-based sex work more risky under existing laws (IRIN)

Last March Janet (not her real name) took a hard look at her prospects and made a drastic decision. Equipped with little more than a friend's phone number, she joined the growing number of Zimbabweans who cross illegally into South Africa every day, looking for a better life.

She felt she knew all about living in South Africa because a friend came home regularly from Johannesburg with gifts for everyone and stories of how well she was doing, and had suggested Janet join her.

Her friend seemed surprised when Janet called to say she had arrived. She said she could not meet her, but directed Janet to a hotel in the city where she could get a job. The hotel's bar was populated by women in skimpy clothing, but Janet did not immediately grasp the situation. "I had never done that kind of work before," said the shy 23-year-old. "It was my first time."

According to Khopotso Nakin, director of the New Life Centre for Girls, an NGO, Janet's story is far from unusual: of the estimated 10,000 commercial sex workers in Hillbrow, a rough inner-city neighbourhood where many hotels double as brothels, 20 percent come from other parts of Africa.

"I never heard of any girl who came here to do sex work," Nakin said. "They come looking for a better living and hoping that their lives will change. Then, most of them get a surprise when they come here."

Without legal documents, and far from their homes in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho and elsewhere, newly arrived female migrants are often forced into sex work simply because they lack alternatives.

Typically, the women have had few educational opportunities and many dropped out of school. Even with the necessary documents, their chances of finding other work are slim.

"Most say they want to move out [of the hotels], that they know they're being exploited and would leave if they could," Nakin explained. "But they can't find work and they're stigmatised for what they do."

Funding from South Africa's Department of Health enabled her to set up the centre last year to provide women with more options. Nakin and her co-workers regularly visit hotels where sex workers operate and invite the women to come to the centre in the adjacent suburb of Berea for free skills training.

Janet started visiting the centre in June 2005. She had been able to send some money home to her parents and five siblings in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, but lived in fear that her family would discover how she had earned it. "I thought, let me just get out of this place before I get too used to it."

She had stayed away from the drugs that keep many women locked into prostitution and moved out of the hotel in July, and started working at the centre as a peer educator five months later. Janet and 10 other former sex workers now visit the hotels to talk to the women about opportunities at the centre, hand out condoms and encourage them to go to the nearby Esselen Street Clinic for HIV counselling and testing.

The R600 ($95) a month stipend she earns as a peer educator is not much more than what she earned in a good night at the hotel - it covers her rent and not much more, meaning she can no longer respond to her mother's letters pleading for her to send money home. Still, Janet has no plans to return to sex work or to Zimbabwe. "I think my life is going to change," she said.

Non-South Africans have difficulty accessing health services, but a programme started by the Reproductive Health Research Unit (RHRU), a privately funded organisation attached to the University of the Witwatersrand, run by the Esselen Street Clinic, offers free counselling and testing services to sex workers regardless of their citizenship.

In an attempt to reach women distrustful of public clinics, or sleeping when the facility is usually open, a mobile clinic takes sexually transmitted infection (STI) treatment services and AIDS education to 15 hotels in the area.

Janet has not been tested for HIV since she came to South Africa, but says she always insisted that clients use a condom and made a deliberate decision not to have boyfriends. "As soon as girls get a boyfriend, they think they can trust them and stop using condoms," she commented.

Tiisetso Motloung, who heads the RHRU's sex worker outreach programme, confirms that sex workers most often lapse in using condoms with their boyfriends rather than their clients, putting themselves at risk.

The road across the border doesn't go to the promised land

"I want to forget the past and now try to improve my life," said Sonia*, examining with satisfaction her new home, a small one-bedroomed brick house without electricity or water on the outskirts of the Mozambican capital, Maputo.

It is being built for her by Rede Came, a local NGO formed to help people overcome the trauma of trafficking and sexual abuse. When the electricity is connected, Sonia will be able to use her home as a base for her small business.

Sonia, 34, has come a long way. Three years ago she was unemployed and jumped at the chance of a job as a domestic worker in neighbouring South Africa, working for a friend of her sister's. She was promised R1,000 (US $166) a month, a considerable amount of money for someone who only finished the 5th grade of primary school, in a country with a minimum wage of 1.2 million Meticais ($48).

She was taken by bus to Johannesburg, South Africa's commercial capital, and began working, as planned, with her sister's acquaintance, a Mozambican woman with an 11-year-old son. But she was not paid what had been promised, and eventually she ran away, even though she did not have a passport and was in the country illegally.

To make end meet, Sonia joined a group of sex workers. "I just did it to survive," she explained. Without official papers she was extremely vulnerable, and when she was raped by four men, was too afraid to go to the police.

[Full report]

*Not her real name.

The women are fearful of coming to the clinic for testing, says Motloung, but of those who do, a staggering 80 percent test positive.

Despite the enormous health risks, many women migrate to Johannesburg and knowingly enter the sex industry as a survival strategy.

Last week, Sarah (not her real name), 25, a single mother, was at home in Zambia, helping to bury her older sister. This week she was sitting on the edge of a bed in a slightly grubby Hillbrow hotel room looking uncomfortable in tight trousers and a top that left her midriff bare.

Given the choice, Sarah would have become a nurse, but her father's death when she was 15 forced her to drop out of school. Her mother died a few years later, and last year her husband passed away. A visiting friend urged Sarah to try sex work in Johannesburg and Sarah agreed. She told her family she had found a job in a restaurant and left her eight-year-old son in the care of her two younger sisters.

She describes herself as "a quiet person" who did not frequent bars and would never approach a man before coming to South Africa. She hopes to save money and return home as soon as possible, but finds the all-night hours difficult and barely earns enough to pay for her hotel room at R120 ($19) a night.

"I just want to raise some money so I can have a decent life," she told IRIN. "This kind of life is not good, but I've got no option."

According to Jonathan Martens at the Southern Africa office of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), an unknown number of women in the sex trade have even less choice than Sarah.

Lured to South Africa by false promises of well-paid employment, education opportunities or marriage, the victims of human traffickers are then coerced into prostitution or other forms of bonded labour.

While it's impossible to know precisely how many have been forced into South Africa's sex industry, the IOM estimates that approximately 1,000 women from Mozambique alone are trafficked into South Africa every year.

"Poverty and lack of opportunity are the main factors," Martens said. "Traffickers definitely capitalise on people's desire for greener pastures, and Johannesburg is often held up as a place where the streets are paved with gold."

The New Life Centre assists the IOM in the difficult task of identifying victims of trafficking. Working her way around one of the hotel bars on a Monday morning, Nakin pauses to chat to each of the young women perched on high stools, waiting for business.

Some are friendly and willingly take her leaflet about the centre, with a second leaflet from the IOM placed discreetly beneath it; others are frightened and distrustful, and refuse to talk.

According to Nakin, these are the women most likely to be in need of help. Many of the men sitting around the bar nursing beers, watching soccer on TV or flirting with the women are customers but, says Nakin, others are pimps and minders who watch their every move.

In the last year, the IOM has helped more than 100 victims of trafficking to return home, or provided skills training and counselling to those who chose to stay in South Africa. Prosecuting the perpetrators is difficult, as anti-trafficking legislation is still being drafted by the South African Law Reform Commission.

"Police find it very difficult to investigate something for which there's no definition," Martens pointed out. "They more or less resort to immigration violations, which aren't much of a deterrent."

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article
Join the discussion

We uncovered the sex abuse scandal that rocked the WHO, but there’s more to do

We just covered a report that says the World Health Organization failed to prevent and tackle widespread sexual abuse during the Ebola response in Congo.

Our investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation triggered this probe, demonstrating the impact our journalism can have. 

But this won’t be the last case of aid worker sex abuse. This also won’t be the last time the aid sector has to ask itself difficult questions about why justice for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation has been sorely lacking. 

We’re already working on our next investigation, but reporting like this takes months, sometimes years, and can’t be done alone. 

The support of our readers and donors helps keep our journalism free and accessible for all. Donations mean we can keep holding power in the aid sector accountable, and do more of this. 

Become a member today and support independent journalism

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.