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A day in the life of a sex worker

Although Indonesian NGOs run concerted campaigns to rescue girls working the streets, most of them want to continue being sex workers because, they say, they and their families need the money.
(A. Mirza/ILO)

In the street below the brightly lit windows of multinational corporate headquarters and exclusive townhouses in Illovo, an upmarket suburb in Johannesburg, the trees cast dark shadows where some of the most vulnerable young women in South Africa do one of the riskiest jobs in the world. They are sex workers.

As the country gears itself up for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in June, the question of how to deal with sex workers grows louder. IRIN spent a night with some of them to learn about their fears and expectations. Abused by violent men, hit by recession, harassed by policemen, they said life could be better.

8.00 p.m.

A hint of perfume and cigarette smoke precedes the tapping sound of stiletto heels on the tarred road. *Patricia Dlamini, 27, from a village in northern KwaZulu-Natal Province, comes into the light from one of the windows and takes a long draw of her cigarette.

"Business is bad right now. The police follow our clients - take money from them. We get few people now."

Moving out of a shadow, her friend *Nolu Mpofu interjects harshly, "They also take money from us - hundred rands [just over US$13] every week!"

''I am very careful always - I was raped last year too''

Dlamini says, "When business is good I make R500 [around $65] in a night. Some days I get nothing. If we don't have the money, the police lock us up!"

It starts pouring with rain. Umbrellas appear out of their tiny handbags and the three of us huddle beneath them, giggling.

A couple of cars slow down, then drive off. I am a bit concerned - perhaps I am disrupting their business? They assure me I am not.

8.30 p.m.

A few cigarettes later Dlamini relaxes and opens up. "I only started doing this [sex work] a year ago. Every evening when I get ready and leave my baby [a six-year-old daughter] with my neighbour to come here, I wish it was not me."

Dlamini dropped out of school to support her parents and two younger siblings. She moved to Johannesburg two years ago and had been working as a waitress until the restaurant decided to downsize. "We were sleeping on the streets, I could find no work. There is no work - so many people I know lost work last year [2009]."

Then a friend introduced her to sex work. "It was hard but I could make money - I can send up to R1,500 [almost $197] at month-end to my mother." Her voice chokes a bit but then she regains control and says, "You know, my brother has now graduated from the science and technology institute." There is pride in her voice. "I helped him through university."

So is it now his turn to support her? "Hah! You know boys!" There is a hint of contempt in her voice. "I have a little sister who is still in school - I have to help her." Her eyes fill with tears.

It is quiet. Another car slows and Mpofu, who has been chatting with the security guard outside a corporate's headquarters, walks towards the car but it drives off. Perhaps there are too many people around.

9.00 p.m.

A car from a private security firm slows down and the driver rolls down the window. Dlamini, Mpofu and the driver greet each other. "We know him," Dlamini assures me. "It is very dark here - he comes to see if we are okay."

They seem to have a support network. "It is good to have someone - when you work on the streets there is no one to look after you." She prefers to work on the streets even if it leaves her vulnerable to abuse. "When you work in a house [brothel] you have to give what you make to them."

Still, there are advantages to working in a brothel. "The house sees what kind of clients come - here you know nothing," says Mpofu. She looks at Dlamini, who does not reply. A few minutes later she says, "I was raped last week. After they [two men] finished, they threw me in the bush in the North West [a neighbouring province] in the night."

She found her way back to Johannesburg but did not go to a clinic. "I don't know about my [HIV] status," she says. She is worried. "I am very careful always - I was raped last year too. I went to the clinic and went for tests and took medicine. I did not get HIV."

Most of the clients in this wealthy suburb are well-behaved. "That is why we work here - the white men, the old black men - they are all okay. It is the young ones who give us trouble!" Dlamini adds with a snort.

9.30 p.m.

It does not seem to be a good night for business. It is still drizzling. Dlamini mellows - she found love last year when one of her clients fell in love with her. "He was a Zimbabwean. He used to phone me all the time, he wanted to marry me," she says wistfully. "He taught me to drive - even got me a driving licence - then I found out he was already married!"

So is she off men then? "No. I want to make lots of money - buy a house, a car, and when I am settled I will get married. That way, even if he leaves me I will still have a house."

Dlamini and Mpofu reckon business could pick up during the World Cup, "but the police will still take money from us." Besides, there is competition - some of the unemployed women migrants from Zimbabwe, Angola and Malawi also work the streets.

"Don't you think you could do something about the police for us?" Dlamini asks. Legalizing sex work will help them, she says. "We hear some people in the government say the police must not arrest us, but they still do it."

A minibus pulls up. The women seem to know the driver and they pile in, the door slams shut and they drive off into the night.

Sex work is illegal in South Africa. Cape Town-based Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), has been campaigning to decriminalize sex work for the past 12 years, said spokeswoman Vivienne Lalu.

Rights activists say legalizing sex work would protect the workers and their clients from HIV and abuse; there are moves afoot to review the Sexual Offences Act. But, Lalu says, "We are still some years away."


* Not their real names

See: Safer sex for soccer fans and sex workers

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

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