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A female sex trade survivor : I wanted to escape but I didn’t know how to

This article was published on Times Select on the 10th June 2019.

For Phindiswa Klaas, 35, working in the sex trade was not something she had ever thought about. She had grown up in Engcobo in the Eastern Cape with her mother and four sisters.

“Then, in 1998, I moved to Cape Town with my father’s family,” she says.

Living in a household with 13 people in the the under-resourced area like Site B in Khayelitsha, Phindiswa had little hope that a great future awaited her. Then, she met a young man who soon became her boyfriend.

Soon after they had met, he encouraged her to leave her family.

“He said ‘come and live with me’. And so I went,” she says.

“Towards the end of 2001, I was pregnant with our first daughter, and I moved in with him, but his sisters kicked me out of his house, telling me that I am very young to stay with a man. I told them that I am pregnant with his daughter and then they allowed me to stay,” she recalls.

Then, her boyfriend took her to the neighbours who began telling her that there were job prospects in Mfuleni, which is about 5km away from Site B.

Her boyfriend gave her R20 for transport, and off she went.

“When I got there I met some ladies and said: ‘Please, I want to join you in whatever business you are doing’. I needed money and they were getting money.”

The women, seeing that she was clearly still in her early 20s, told her she was too young for such business but she was desperate for money and insisted.

But the horrors of the work soon became very apparent to her: “In that period, I quickly became more trapped in system of prostitution and my first experience is when a sex buyer dragged me to very dark bushes and sexually abused me and left me lying helpless in those bushes.”

It was two years later when she was desperate to get out of the system that she took up voluntary work for the ANC. By then, the boyfriend who had pimped her was no longer around.

“After volunteering, I got a job opportunity, a three-months contract. By that time I found a boyfriend who was also permanent working for ANC, and he married me.”

When the three-month contract was over, Phindiswa felt like her life could get back on track, but once again she had no income. She and her boyfriend had had a baby, so now she had two children, and no money.

She then found a job as a parking marshal, and still held hope that things would turn around. But the salary was so small it could hardly be called a living wage.

“Bear in mind that I was still married so where down the line my husband discovered that I’m a prostitute things became very bad at home and he divorced me,” she says, adding: “I knew what I was doing was not right and I wanted to exit prostitution but I did not know how.”

Pretended she sold drugs

Phindiswa had another baby girl, and saw no other way of making a living. She says that the hardest part about it was doing it to feed and clothe her children, while also having to hide from them how she was making a living.

She once even pretended to them that she was selling drugs as a way of explaining her secretive behaviour. But her children remained suspicious.

“A man would come to the house and if he left a bottle of brandy, for example, my children would see it and ask: ‘Is there a man here? Why was there a man here?’”

After years of finding herself in sexually and otherwise abusive situations just to earn a living, Phindiswa finally joined an NGO, the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce. Here, she campaigned with others for the inclusion of sex workers as respected and valued members of society, and carried on working as a sex worker.

But later she realised that this did not fit in with her own ideology. She felt like the sex trade had violated all her human rights and no longer wanted to campaign for it to be seen as a legitimate way to make money that should be regulated and its workers protected.

Earlier in 2019, she joined the Kwanele survivors’ movement and says: “Enough is enough.”

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A survivors’ group: Do not offer sex work to us as a solution

This article was published on Times Select on the 10th June 2019. 

Mickey Meji is the leader of a prostitution survivor movement called Kwanele, which is supported by NGO Embrace Dignity.

Unlike other forms of advocacy that seek to make the trade legal and regulated and remove the negative stigma of the word prostitution itself, Meji is all about an exit plan for those stuck in the system.

“South African survivors of the system of prostitution have been dehumanised, humiliated and stripped of our dignity as, invariably, black, poor African women,” she says.

She says survivors do not want the system of prostitution to be decriminalised, legalised and “offered to us as a solution for unemployment and poverty”.

“We call upon government, our countrymen and women to embrace us and shift the burden, stigma and accountability to the men who take advantage of our vulnerability,” she says.

According to Embrace Dignity, reasons that many mostly poor and mostly black women and other marginalised individuals give for entering the system of prostitution include to feed and support families.

They are pushed into the system by cycles of poverty, unemployment, retrenchment, death of a breadwinner, not completing school as a result of needing to raise or help raise siblings, and by being orphaned.

Some are also forced into it to pay off loans, while others have run away from home after being sexually and physically abused.

An international study that looked at nine countries, including SA, found that 63% of those in the sex trade were sexually abused as children. This was after interviewing 854 people working in the sex trade.

It was also found that almost 60% had been beaten as children, to the point of injury, and that 64% as adults in the sex trade had been threatened with a dangerous weapon. Physical assault was high at 71%, and 63% had been raped.

Lead author Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist, said, “We asked those we interviewed in six countries (Canada, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, SA and Zambia) whether they thought that legalising prostitution would make them physically safer. Across countries 46% stated that prostitution would be no safer if it were legalised. It is noteworthy that in Germany, where brothel prostitution is legal, 59% of respondents told us that they did not think that legal prostitution made them any safer from rape and physical assault.”

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, who founded Embrace Dignity, says: “A common thread of poverty and human rights abuses all too often runs through the life stories of many survivors of the system of prostitution.”

When there is a major sporting event, it “boosts” the industry: “We are seeing a trend with not least mega-events such as major South African horse races where women are paid to fly to the race and pander to the whims of their so-called ‘blesser’,” says Madlala-Routledge.

“While society tends to judge many of these women as materialistic and so-called millennials eager to add to their shoe collection, the reality could not be further from the truth, and we need to be clear about the reasons that resulted in them accepting the advances of a ‘blesser’ in the first place,” she adds.

Meji says that given that the SA girl child is increasingly assuming the role of breadwinner, the fate of SA society depends not least on ensuring that marginalised individuals trapped in the system of prostitution are given exit programmes.

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