Sex workers walk line between law and livelihood
Prostitutes recount 'horror' stories of abuse by law enforcement, and constant threat posed by public nuisance by-law
Persistent rain and a drop in temperature does nothing to dampen the spirits of sex worker Akhona Jambase* as she and her sisters line the streets of a residential suburb in Durban.
Patting her ginger weave, the 24-year-old from Matatiele, on the border between the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, is not fazed by a miserly John who stops, then drives off because he doesn’t want to pay her R100 fee.
In fact, she is not fazed by many things, including the public nuisance by-law in Durban which prohibits prostitution and has resulted in hundreds of fines against sex workers.
Jambase says that although she hasn’t been fined she knows about the “horror” stories of abuse, bribery, threats and favours the women have to perform to get out of being arrested and abused by enforcement officers.
She says she was forced into prostitution a year ago after both her parents died and she had to support four younger siblings.“Back at home they don’t even know what I’m doing and I don’t want them to know,” says Akhona, whose dream was to pursue studies in electrical infrastructure.
She dropped out of Grade 11 and makes between R500 and R1,000 a night.
Her profession and income are a target for the city.
The eThekwini Municipality says more than R37-million worth of fines were issued to 14,915 prostitutes under the loitering with intent to cause a crime section of the public nuisance by-law. It was not able to say how many of those fines were paid.
The by-law on nuisances and behaviour in public places, which came into effect at the end of 2016, is partly modelled on stringent by-laws already in force in Cape Town.
The by-law, which also prohibits begging, urinating, defecating, spitting, performing sexual acts, appearing nude, consuming alcohol or being drunk, is already reaping rewards judging by the number of fines that have been issued.
Since it came into effect, 36,934 fines valued at R62-million have been issued.
The city’s Metro Police senior superintendent , Parboo Sewpersad, said: “The by-laws are only successful when you have a full complement of staff to enforce so that we can achieve adherence to the laws.”But the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), an NGO that has been has been campaigning for the inclusion of sex workers as respected and valued members of society, has described the implementation of the public nuisance by-law as a violation of constitutional rights.
“Over the past year SWEAT’s legal defence centre has been monitoring the use of the by-laws against sex workers in Cape Town. In total, 112 copies of fines have been handed into our offices by sex workers seeking assistance and the total number of these collected fines is R109,100. This figure is indeed astonishing for SWEAT because this means that there have been 112 sex workers who have been harassed by law enforcement,” said Stacey Manoek, SWEAT’s in-house attorney.
She said SWEAT was consulting with sex workers and is considering challenging the by-laws.
Abuse and bribery
It was also revealed last week that sex workers will be arrested at least four times and will spend an average of 40 hours in custody if they are charged. More worrying was that one-third of sex worker arrests never make it to a police station or courtroom. Instead they often end in sex workers being abused by police or forced to pay bribes.
These were just some of the findings of the Policing of Sex Work in South Africa survey compiled by Sonke Gender Justice and SWEAT.
It is estimated that there are between 132,000 and 182,000 female, male and transgender sex workers in South Africa, where the buying and selling of sex is criminalised.
Bulwer Community Safety Forum chairperson Heather Rorick, who has been tackling prostitution in Glenwood, welcomed the fines against sex workers.
She said, however, that the problem was that sex workers supplied incorrect details and fines were unpaid.