Open Letter from Sex Worker Advocate to South Africa’s Honorable Premier Nomvula Mokonyane

fist This open letter comes to us through the activists at the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) in South Africa. SWEAT is involved in direct outreach work with sex workers around health and safety as well as public awareness and advocacy work.

For much of our history the vast majority of South Africans suffered extreme injustice, deprivation and systematic human rights abuses. We need to continue to guard against the ways in which the abuses of the past live on.

Sex workers have for too long become targets of hate crime, name calling and being shamed and violently abused, often by those supposed to protect their human rights and the law. As under apartheid when somebody found themselves hyper visible and invisible due to the color of their skin and subject to derogatory stereotypes ; sex workers today find themselves subjected to very similar acts of prejudice, harassment, stigmatisation and violence.

Being a sex worker in Africa is not a matter of morality or even sexual expression, in much the same way that being black under apartheid was not a matter of pigmentation but a reflection of a mental attitude, state of consciousness, a way to emancipate yourself and fight against all forces that marks you out as a subservient being without access to basic life enriching resources. Being a sex worker is to hold your head high in defiance rather than willingly surrender to the crushing effects of poverty.

It is to say, in most situations:

“As a mother, as an ordinary poor woman, I enter the sex industry for economic reasons so as to put food onto the table to feed my children. I am poor but I will survive and will not let my children die. The sex industry is one of the few options open to me. Even if my choice is constrained, it is a rational choice and survival strategy even if it creates difficulties in other respects, like working under exploitative conditions and risking human rights violations. I deserve to have my choice respected.”

Your frank talk last week reminded me of Biko and the time period in our history when those fighting for the rights of the oppressed become lone voices in the darkness and human rights abuse was the order of the day. Biko spoke of liberation as both an act of claiming land and legal rights but also an act of psychological emancipation from the chains of the mind where by people internalized the prejudices of the oppressor and then oppresses others the way they have been oppressed. After years and years of abuse of sex workers we at last have a voice of reason and compassion from somebody in a position of power. It is significant that this voice comes from a woman who clearly knows and understands the struggle of those mothers trying to feed their children, something men struggle to understand. Perhaps it takes a woman to see beyond the hype, sensationalising and stereotyping of sex workers – to see the human face of the sex worker.

In the face of brutal abuse and stigmatisation your recognition of the humanity of our fellow sisters and brothers means a huge amount. We salute you for this; even though we do not agree on how best to regulate the industry – we argue for decriminalisation. You have opened the debate up in a humane and pragmatic way. Yes, it is imperative to stop criminals capitalising upon and exploiting sex workers, a situation that prevails as long as sex work is not regulated. You are correct that we cannot wait until 2010. As long as sex work is illegal criminals will thrive and use this to their advantage. Sex workers will not be able to report situations where they observe trafficking and children selling sex.

We can apply the words of President Barack Obama when he said that the debates around abortion will not go away. Similarly the debates around sex work is necessary and important. We will never get anywhere unless we stop reducing those with differing views to caricature and stop demonising one another. The debate on sex work is extremely complex but we must be able to deal with things that make us uncomfortable.

We thank you for you open mind, passion and concern to protect the human rights of sex workers and ensure that criminals do not capitalise upon the situation. A “conducive” environment needs to be created were sex workers can work in safety, pay their taxes and exist as citizens.

We salute you for not only raising the debate, but also having the courage to propose solutions.

Eric Harper
Director SWEAT
Tel: 27 21 448 7875
Fax: 27 21 448 5857
E-mail: richie.september@sweat.org.za
Community House
41 Salt River Rd
Salt River
7915
Cape Town

3 Responses

  1. [...] found this interesting article through Audacia Ray’s Twitter page. Ray does amazing work in the field of sex work, sexual [...]

  2. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. [...] Open Letter from Sex Worker Advocate to South Africa’s Honorable Premier Nomvula Mokonyane « Boun… "Sex workers have for too long become targets of hate crime, name calling and being shamed and violently abused, often by those supposed to protect their human rights and the law. As under apartheid when somebody found themselves hyper visible and invisible due to the color of their skin and subject to derogatory stereotypes; sex workers today find themselves subjected to very similar acts of prejudice, harassment, stigmatisation and violence. [...]

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