“They are mothers. They love their children. And what is making them go to work is their children,” says Dudu Dlamini, who has worked for the sex worker advocacy organisation Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce since 2008.
“The saddest thing is that most sex workers aren’t telling their children what they do because of the stigma and discrimination that ends up in them not being able to be open with their kids about many, many things, including the challenges they face on a daily basis,” she says.
For example, many sex workers get arrested while working and aren’t able to tell their children why they did not come home at the time that they said they would, breaking promises and undermining trust.
This is one of the reasons Dlamini advocates so relentlessly for the decriminalisation of the profession.
On 25 July Dlamini became the first person to win the Prudence Mabele Award, an endowment made in honour of the first black woman to publicly reveal her HIV status in South Africa, presented to her at the International Aids Conference that was held in Amsterdam.
The International Aids Society (IAS) created the prize, which has the highest monetary value of all awards at the conference, to bring international recognition to the remarkable work of gender justice and health equity activists.
This award recognised Dlamini’s most ground-breaking and important work in the form of a project she set up in 2013 called Mothers for the Future. The project assists sex workers in many areas related to their children which are sometimes incredibly challenging due to the legal status of their work.
Mothers for the Future helps sex workers keep their children healthy and in school as well as providing legal help when the government tries to remove their children from their care into foster care.
“Through my work with sex workers… I found that they are mothers too and they love their children more than anything, and it is to help their children that they go to work,” she says.
Mothers for the Future, which started in the Western Cape, has since been launched in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. By the end of this year it is expected to be launched in Limpopo and the North West.
“I felt I needed to bring support to something most people don’t realise: That sex workers are not only affected by their work or HIV but there are a lot of other issues they face.”
Besides the danger sex workers face every day – being harassed, arrested, raped and even killed – she says they face a myriad of other challenges related to stigma and discrimination which make it difficult and sometimes impossible to be the mothers they want to be.
For example, there are next-to-no shelters available for sex workers who don’t have a permanent residence. Dlamini says shelters don’t allow women to sleep there during the day, which bars sex workers who do most of their work at night.
Most crèches are only open during the day which prohibits sex workers from utilising these services for the same reasons.
She says that nannies employed by sex workers often charge higher fees and blackmail them with the threat of calling social workers to remove their children.
“One of the sex workers we are working with was unable to return home the following morning as agreed with the nanny because she was arrested by police. The social worker took the children and we, and our human rights defenders, really had to fight to get those children back. We were lucky in this case because the social worker was progressive, but in most times that is not true,” she says.
“It’s a very painful. The space we create to talk to sex workers about their experiences about losing their children, the very children they are working for to feed and protect. They are experiencing trauma at every level of the system.”
According to Dlamini the criminalisation of sex work creates friction between them and their children, as well as their families. Because of their lack of legal status and the stigma associated with their work, they often hide what they do from their loved ones. Having to hide and lie to the people closest to them is painful and “takes away their dignity”.
“Decriminalising sex work will play a big role because it will bring back the dignity of the sex worker and also the dignity of their children. We will be able to exercise our human rights, be recognised by labour laws and access health services freely,” Dlamini explains.
“Sex workers will be able to disclose what they do with their children whenever they are ready and children will be able to feel how much their mothers really love them while being safe and protected while they work, unlike now when a mother leaves in the afternoon and comes back two days later without being able to tell them why,” she says.
She says decriminalisation won’t solve everything. It won’t solve poverty and unemployment but it “will save lives”, remembering the numerous sex workers who have been killed “while the murderers still walk free in our communities”.
Decriminalisation will go a long way to help “a mother to enjoy being a mother, a mother who sacrifices for her children”.
“To ignore the reality of what is happening to sex workers in our country it means we are not a progressive country. Because sex work is here. It is alive. It is supporting entire families – and decriminalisation is the most important step to take if we really say we are a country that protects the rights of all humans,” she says.
She says criminalisation “silences” sex workers to respond to HIV, to get justice against rape and violence, silences them to be free “it silences them around absolutely everything”.
“In South Africa the Constitution says that everyone has a right to choose their occupation, a right for safety and security, a right to eat and make decisions without being discriminated against – but where are all of these for sex workers? Nothing,” she says.
“It is a very hidden pain that these women experience, and if we say no to decriminalising sex work, then this means they will be having to hold this secret pain forever.” DM
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