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In South Africa They Say That All Humans Are Equal, Except Sex Workers?

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By Pamela Eapen:

“I am a sex worker. I don’t sell my body, I sell sex.

South Africa is one of the many countries where sex work is illegal (and has been since 1957) – and yet approximately 153 000 people in the country are involved in it. Many of these people – men, women, and transgenders – who enter this trade, do so because they have no other way to feed themselves or support their families. Many are immigrants who were unable to find employment due to lack of jobs in the current economic climate, and so turned to the source of income that required no more resources than their own bodies. They too, despite their occupation, have rights – and yet they are considered and treated as anathema by those unsympathetic to their situation.

Image by © Corbis
Image by © Corbis

Prostitution Laws

Sex work is treated in very different ways depending on the country. We find that the trade is legal more in developed countries like Netherlands and Germany, where sex workers are registered and brothels require licences to operate, and only under legally-specified conditions. It has been decriminalised in New Zealand and Mexico – which means that there are no laws against prostitution (although the law does differentiate between voluntary and coerced prostitution). However, prostitution still remains illegal in many countries – Egypt, Liberia and China being a few – which means that sex workers are unable to seek legal or social assistance without facing impunity for their occupation. However, “South Africa follows a model that is the total criminalisation of sex work, which means that sex workers bear the brunt of the full impact of the law.

Sex Work Unions

South African Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) has taken it upon themselves to support sex workers across the country; and to advocate for the decriminalisation (rather than the legalisation) of sex work in South Africa.

I don’t want my children to do this work and if it is legal then they might think that it is okay. If there was a way to make police stop harassing us, then that is good, but to make it legal is not good for anyone.

They employ and provide safe-sex education to sex workers (both former and present) in order to create a better working and living environment for them. They also find ways to provide them basic needs like healthcare and legal representation; and bring the workers together to form a support system.

We decided that as sex workers, we want our own movement so that they will be able to hear our own voices.

Violence Against Sex Workers

One of the most horrifying conditions the workers face is the fearless violence and exploitation perpetrated against them. Fearless, because clients know that they can rape and beat a prostitute, and get away with it – because police will turn a blind eye to sexual offenses perpetrated against those in the sex industry. In fact, police themselves have been the offenders. Workers have been raped by them. They have had their livelihood taken from them by police who demand bribes and throw workers in jail when they refuse to comply.

They put me on the back of [the police van]… so he can do his job.

They deal with being raped, and we always have this thing of saying sex workers are not being raped, because she’s a sex worker.

The HIV Menace

Another intensely disturbing fact is the level of their exposure to HIV/AIDS. The South African National Aids Council (Sanac) recently stated that 60% of sex workers are HIV-positive (although this number has since been disputed). Many contract it because of clients unwilling to wear condoms, or when they are raped. In some cases, prostitutes are unwilling to carry condoms around with them, as police see this almost as evidence that they are sex workers. Several are unable to access decent healthcare, or are scorned for their circumstances when they do get clinical assistance. It has been reported that sex workers would be the most receptive to HIV-prevention campaigns (as they have been overseas), but this remains to be seen in South Africa, where sex workers get marginal attention from the government.

We are consistently told that all humans in South Africa are equal – but when we realise sex workers are not considered humans by most of the populace, we begin to discover the extent to which they are denigrated. They are an already vulnerable group actively persecuted by those who hold power over them. They are the unwanted change that we don’t pick up when it rolls into the gutter.

They are sex workers.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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