Sex workers: Ignored by the state, abused by police

The consequences of criminalisation continue to plague sex workers – denied government aid and reproductive healthcare, and at the mercy of brutal policing – as the Covid-19 pandemic progresses.

Covid-19 has intensified the symptoms of South Africa’s chronic failures and, in the case of the nation’s sex workers, promises of change and efforts to dull the pain of lockdown only temporarily mask a systemic crisis. In the days leading up to 26 March 2020, and the weeks immediately following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s initial address, media attention focused on the exclusion of sex workers from the Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme and the hardships of those worst afflicted by stay-at-home orders.

The social and economic exclusion of South Africa’s sex workers cannot, however, be isolated to this health crisis alone. Rather, these effects are manifestations of a system that criminalises sex work and, in doing so, perpetuates government ambivalence towards the needs of this marginalised group, inhibits sex workers from accessing vital healthcare resources and permits the continued, and now intensified, abuse of vulnerable women by police.

Constance Mathe, national coordinator at the Asijiki Coalition for the Decriminalisation of Sex Work, described the exclusion of sex workers from lockdown unemployment benefits as deliberate in its intent: “[The grant] goes to unemployed people but it is different for sex workers who run their own businesses … because sex work is criminalised, they can’t register their work or prove that this is how they earn a living.” Marlise Richter, former head of Sonke Gender Justice’s policy, development and advocacy unit, added that the only financial assistance sex workers qualify for is the social relief of distress grant of R350 a month. 

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Inherent within sex work is a high risk of interpersonal disease transmission, with sex workers particularly vulnerable to contracting Covid-19 and disproportionately unable to earn a living even after lockdown is eased. Last year, in partnership with the Asijiki Coaltion, I conducted a 67-person study of sex workers from Cape Town and the surrounding rural areas and found that, on average, the earnings from sex work go toward supporting upwards of four dependants. This important source of financial stability has evaporated without meaningful government interventions, further complicating the “layers of vulnerability”, as Richter calls it, that envelope sex workers.

Many sex workers who, prior to lockdown, worked within brothels now find themselves unable to pay rent and face eviction from their homes. Mathe described previously self-sufficient women as reduced to begging, unable to care for themselves or their families. Government’s limited, and in many ways negligent, response to the plight of those living on Cape Town’s streets has been to construct provisional shelters such as the one in Strandfontein. This controversial establishment has already been earmarked for closure as a result of serious health and social concerns. 

Mathe observed a total lack of “disease screening for a tent in which 500 people are forced together”, and explained that “homeless sex workers are arrested for outstanding warrants [and] made to leave their belongings, medications and stuff for their children” before being relocated to the Strandfontein shelter. “They are not provided with blankets … and there have been incidents of rape since men and women are housed together.” A number of sex worker advocacy groups have, according to Mathe, implored the state to intervene on behalf of sex workers, but “government is more focused on alcohol and cigarettes than on these human issues”.

Persecuting sex workers 

Government neglect of sex workers is not a new phenomenon. Sex worker advocacy groups have now turned to trade unions for assistance in making their pleas heard. Collaboration with unions is essential for sex workers, not only in this period of economic stress, but also more broadly in the fight for formalised labour protections for sex workers (which would, in turn, prevent the exclusion of the sex market from government relief programs such as the unemployment insurance fund). Unionised sex workers would be empowered to represent themselves within the political sphere as citizens reporting violations of their human rights, rather than as criminal offenders afraid of further police persecution. The criminalisation of sex work perpetuates violence against women, men and transgender people in South Africa.

The continued, brutal criminal prosecution of sex workers during our coronavirus lockdown is causing reductions in access to healthcare for South Africa’s sex workers. Mathe described how many specialist reproductive health clinics have either been closed down or have stopped stocking contraceptives as a part of pandemic response preparations. She spoke with a number of Parrow-based sex workers, finding that “almost all their money is going towards buying condoms since they aren’t earning like they used to and clinics don’t have anything for sex workers”. Of course, the stigma associated with criminalised sex work posed obstacles to healthcare access prior to the pandemic. 

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The study in Cape Town documented numerous instances of doctors and nurses harassing sex workers and denying their requests for sexually transmitted disease tests, condoms and abortions. Discrimination of this kind is most common in rural clinics outside of major cities, but the implementation of Covid-19 response measures has broadened this access issue. For Richter, the shift in focus made by various organisations towards a humanitarian Covid-19 response and away from strategic, organised approaches to decriminalising sex work is problematic. “Hopefully, Covid brings attention to the need for global health systems … but it may also threaten established services for marginalised groups.” 

Funds previously allocated to advocacy campaigns for legal reform or to establish reproductive health clinics are now being repurposed to address immediate humanitarian and public health demands. Sex workers and their allied organisaions are almost wholly dependent on donations in the absence of state intervention. The scaling back of reproductive health provisions has exacerbated this dependency. Even as South Africa begins to ease its coronavirus lockdown, there is a danger that issues of reproductive health and the specific treatment requirements of sex workers may be crowded out. Efforts in the direction of sex work decriminalisation may also struggle to gain traction in a society grappling with the economic and social effects of Covid-19. 

Afraid of the police

Heavily armed police and soldiers have waged a one-sided war against sex workers, residents of townships and those dependent on public services, in the name of enforcing lockdown regulations. Evicted sex workers who refuse to abandon their belongings – and networks of friendships established over many years surviving South Africa’s streets together – are threatened with arrest or hefty fines for outstanding warrants related to sex work. This onslaught of violent policing has even reached sex workers who live in homes with their families. 

Mathe observed how “sex workers are scared even to go to the shops … police will see them and know that they are sex workers … even if they are just buying food, police will stop them, accuse them of doing sex work or use outstanding warrants against them”. Mathe added that the situation is worse for sex workers living on and around the farms of the Cape Winelands. Many have been evicted from their residences or laid off from temporary jobs on farms and are unable to engage in sex work because of intensified policing efforts on the streets. This abrupt loss of income and housing security has been compounded by militarised roadblocks and police stops, which stand between sex workers and grocery stores in towns great distances away. 

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Indeed, the excessively punitive approach of the police and soldiers under lockdown has demonstrated how these institutions are anti-working class and anti-women at their core. In April, the chilling news of sex worker Elma Robyn Montsumi’s death in custody at Mowbray Police Station crystalised how the guise of criminalisation works as a cover for systemic abuse of sex workers at the hands of law enforcement. Montsumi’s alleged suicide prompted immediate calls for a thorough investigation co-signed by the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat), Sisonke, the National Movement of Sex Workers and the Triangle Project. Montsumi’s case has since been referred to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, but there are serious concerns about the capacity and will of this body to pursue the matter properly.

Incidents of negligence, harassment and abuse of power perpetuated by police during lockdown are logical extensions of a system that criminalises the victims it is supposed to protect. The criminalisation of sex work traps an already marginalised group outside of the legal system through which they are expected to report incidents of rape and abuse. Repeated cycles of arresting sex workers do not target the perpetrators of serious violent crimes in the sex industry, label sex workers with criminal records rendering them unable to seek other forms of employment and wastes scarce public resources in a nation wracked by gender-based violence and other serious violent crimes. 

Beyond the obvious inability to achieve its stated purpose, criminalisation enables the verbal, physical and psychological abuse of sex workers by police. A 2017 report published by Sweat and Sonke Gender Justice detailed harrowing criminal abuses sex workers had suffered at the hands of police, ranging from harassment to rape. A quote from a participant in the report demonstrates why it is not enough to focus solely on the immediate negative consequences of lockdown and why acknowledging the dehumanising framework of criminalisation is critical: “Even though the man raped me and stole my cell phone, I am more frightened of the police than I am of that man.”

Decriminalising sex work

Before South Africa entered its coronavirus lockdown, the National Strategic Plan on Gender-based Violence and Femicide, published on 11 March, outlined a commitment to decriminalising sex work by 2024. But, in Richter’s words, “while this is an important victory … as we have seen with previous plans related to HIV, commitments are not always implemented, and it is possible that this [commitment to decriminalisation] will fall away by the implementation stage”. The new and compelling problems caused by Covid-19 have made it all the more important that promises of decriminalisation – and sustainable projects to assist and protect marginalised South African workers – are not lost in government relief efforts. Sweat, Sonke Gender Justice and the Asijiki Coalition, advocacy groups previously dedicated to campaigning for decriminalisation and workplace protections for sex workers, have had to shift their focus to the immediate humanitarian crisis caused by the social and economic effects of the coronavirus. 

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Mathe repeatedly expressed her frustration at ongoing difficulties in raising the salience of sex workers’ needs and keeping long-term policy goals on the national agenda. In a country battling a pandemic of gender-based violence alongside Covid-19, the protection of sex workers and decriminalisation of the sex market ought to be a priority. Treating the immediate problems exposed and exacerbated by lockdown is a necessary first step, but only through maintaining a focus on the long-term policy changes that position sex workers as equal and protected citizens can we guarantee workplace dignity for all South Africans.

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