Cutting through the stigma: Sex workers are given a break
The Perinatal HIV Research Unit in Soweto employs former sex workers as support for workers on the street
At only seven years old, a Soweto girl as the eldest child in the household had to make sure her five cousins and grandmother were fed every day. Her mother had left them and her grandmother was being treated for tuberculosis – so the child had to become an adult in very painful, traumatic ways.
“That’s when I was introduced to the sex industry,” the girl, now a young woman, says of the day she had to start “paying” for the food the neighbour often provided.
He simply told her one day: “At some point you need to pay for all of these things.”
Naively, she offered to clean his house in return, but it was a much higher price he had his sight on.
“Now I see it as abuse or molesting, but back then it was more a case of they have to eat.
“I thought there was no option. I thought maybe this is how life works. If you don’t have money, you need to do this to get what you need at that moment. It seemed normal to me.”The neighbour sometimes picked her up and dropped her mid-air and even choked her.
“He would be like: ‘That’s what I want to see, this is what I like’ … People have crazy fantasies.”
After 15 years as a sex worker, life has given her a break – and now through her work at the Perinatal HIV Research Unit (PHRU) at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto she can help other women in the same position. The PHRU is part of the University of Witwatersrand (Wits).
She stopped by the clinic one day for her routine checks on her way to drop off her CV at a call centre. A few hours later her phone rang and the PHRU offered her to come back for a possible job.
“I got very lucky … I thought I was being scammed.
“I pray. I just forget about a whole lot and just make sure that tomorrow is not the same as today. I am career-driven now … I think there is more to me than the past.”
The team consists of about 35 staff members who help about 1,500 people per month. Of these staff members, 24 meet at the hospital at 8am to stock up on condoms, lubricants and pamphlets before they hit the streets to reach out to sex workers.Her colleague *Lesedi said: “We used to work [as sex workers]; some are still working. It is easy to talk to them (sex workers), because we know their ways. Some we know them from the field … We know the language.”
The programme tries to encourage sex workers to visit the clinic at the hospital often for medication, psychosocial counselling and testing or help in referring sex workers to other clinics if needed. The HIV virus stops replicating if treatment is taken correctly every day, meaning a person is no longer infectious.
However, according to recent Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) data‚ one in three HIV-positive people in South Africa are not on treatment and can still spread the virus.
“Through the Department of Health we have access to labs and meds and we then provide the staff. We try to provide a safe space downstairs where people can come and watch television, read a magazine or pick up condoms. They can also see a counsellor or the doctor, and do a pap smear,” the PHRU’s Dr Jenny Coetzee said.Sex workers are often overtly or silently judged and stigmatised when they visit other clinics.
“You are the worst scum whereas there are murderers out there. There are serial killers out there. [Yet] You are the worst thing ever in the eyes of the people,” *Luthando said.
The PHRU interviewed 508 female sex workers in Soweto between February and September 2016 and the research was published on July 5 this year. It found almost seven out of every 10 female sex workers suffered from severe depression (68.7%), almost four in 10 (39.6%) suffered from PTSD and just over three in 10 (32.7%) suffered from both. Research found about 4.9% of South Africans adults suffer from depression.
“This was really just the tip of the iceberg. It was sticking a toe in the water … There is a huge amount that we don’t know,” Coetzee said.
*Lesedi fell pregnant in high school and dropped out. She fled to Johannesburg after her abusive ex-boyfriend threatened to burn her alive.
“That thing pushed me. I came [to Johannesburg] knowing that I am going to do one-two-three. At that the time I did not feel anything. I was just gonna do whatever I wanted to do, because I was violated and I was abused.”
*Luthando said: “You never really quit [sex work] … I’d go through financial challenges and I decided this was the fastest way to make money so I’d go back.”
The PHRU upskills sex workers by offering training and support groups so that if their funding ever runs out, sex workers can continue to offer these services to others.
“They are increasing their choice in life,” Coetzee said.
* Pseudonyms to protect their identities