Friday, March 18, 2011

Sex workers in South Africa...

...are tired of cops raping them

Caroline Zulu is a born-leader. She is adored in Hillbrow, a tough Black inner-city neighborhood in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she lives. Vendors and street kids waive as she passes by and sex workers in the brothels and on the street speak of her in glowing terms.

At 32, Zulu has been a sex worker for six years. She is also a peer-educator for the Reproductive Health Research Unit and sex workers from Johannesburg elected her president of the local chapter of Sisonke, the South African Network of Sex Workers.

In South Africa brothels are not legal, but exist nonetheless. Many sex workers live and do sex business in rooms they rent by the day in buildings that usually have a bar and security officers on the ground floor. In one of these brothels, sex workers will tell you excitedly about how when management raised the rent, Zulu organized a meeting of all the sex workers who lived there to talk about how to respond. Together, the hundred-some women agreed to all raise their prices from 30 Rand to 50 Rand and together, increased their earnings.

Many sex workers will tell you of how, with a luminous grin and a strong tone, Zulu has reminded them of their rights and power. On May 25 this year, Caroline Zulu talked with SWAN News to share her experience with fellow sex workers in Central Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

ALC: Thank you for speaking with us. Can you tell me what are you most excited about right now?

CZ: We prayed and asked, and we are finally getting an office space and a computer for the Johannesburg chapter of Sisonke, the South African Sex Workers Network. {Sisonke is coordinated through SWEAT, Sex Workers’ Education and Advocacy Taskforce in Cape Town}

ALC: What are some of the issues sex workers are facing in Hillbrow?

CZ: The police abuse sex workers, steal our money, demand sex. When the girls are arrested, the police want us to pay 300 Rand to let us free. They say it is a fine for “loitering”. But they refuse to give us an official receipt for our money or a paper that says we were arrested for “loitering”. Once we pay, there is no record of the charges, so we can’t go to court.

So, we are talking with each other, with all the sex workers, and saying don’t pay the police, let them take you to the jail and demand a paper receipt of the loitering charge. We are collecting these papers and SWEAT will help us do an action around it.

It is a long process but it is necessary because it is getting worse with the police: they are always demanding sex from us or taking advantage of us. Sometimes, they take sex workers in their cars and drop them very far off outside town with no money and they must struggle to come home.

Both girls in the brothels and on the street are excited for it to change. On the street, they all tell one lady the info of what is happening and she tells me. These days, many Zimbabwean girls on the street and indoors are all complaining about cops, cops, cops...

ALC: Are the police different with the girls on the street and in the brothels?

CZ: In the brothels, the police run in and run upstairs to where the girls live. Sometimes, they even shoot rubber bullets, they are too rough! They steal and steal. They know sex workers cannot have bank accounts because you need a pay slip to open one, so they go through our things and steal all our money, all our savings. Then they arrest sex workers for loitering... But they pay rent to live in those rooms! Now tell me what kind of loitering is that!

When they load the girls in the police van, instead of counting them 1, 2, 3, 4, they count the sex workers by how much money they will take from us, 300, 600, 900, 1200.

And if you don’t pay they take you to jail for some days and that is not the right place for a human being. You can’t take antiretroviral drugs or any medication you need. There is no food or water or cigarettes. They don’t allow you a shirt if it is cold, or a visitor. But if you pay, you don’t have to go there. And most pay.

On the street, when girls pick up customers they sometimes go with him, but it isn’t safe, so it is preferable to go to a near-by hotel. But since sometimes there is no money for that, girls have made deals with security guards who work in underground parking lots. They pay 20 Rand for a pedestrian customer, more for a car. And then they can have sex in the car, or sometimes there are little rooms down there where you can lie down a blanket or something for a bed. It can be crowded down there, maybe you will find another sex worker is already in the room, but it is safer because you have got security and it is safer then going somewhere you don’t know.

Now, the police have caught on that the girls go there though. Last month, the cops went into the parking lot as usual looking for sex workers. But the sex workers were tired of how the cops come and rape them. So, they locked one of the police officers up in a little room. Then they ran and called the Daily Sun newspaper and told them. The police officer had broken down the door by the time the media arrived but they managed to get pictures of him running away!

You see, sex workers do want to fight the system but it is hard sometimes when you do not know where to start.

ALC: Do you work in the streets or brothels?

CZ: I worked a couple months in the streets, now I work in the brothels or hotels or I take clients back to my flat. I didn’t like the street, I never felt safe. There weren’t places like those underground parking lots then. You could go to a man’s place and there would be 4 or 5 guys waiting to rape you. Also, I hated the cops and I hated having to run, run, run from them everyday.

In the brothels, it is safer because you have security men. But sometimes you still have to run, when the cops come, sometimes you try and escape to the roof. And let me tell when you run up nine floors, you cough a lot when you get to the top. And you are there shaking.

ALC: What are you proudest of right now?

CZ: We are learning different skills like computers, sewing, catering and counseling skills. That makes me happy, when people see us as capable people, as human beings. It is not only education that will take you far: with your hands and mind, you can do many things.

Also, you know, we sex workers are supporting our children and sometimes supporting whole large families, 10 or 15 people. We are paying for our children’s school, sometimes up to college. There are lots of challenges facing sex workers. But you know: we are not so different from women who visit their boyfriends and get money. Or our mothers and sisters who wash & cook and take care of their boyfriend or husband waiting to be paid or supported. It is the same thing, why criticize us?





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1 comment:

James Allen said...

Very informative post, I live in UK and feel we miss out a lot as all the major bookish events occur in the US. Even the events that do occur over here would be impossible for me to attend so I have to make do with making individual, personal connections.
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