September 27, 2017 maHp News 0 Comments

Sex (work) and the City (tour)

maHp/ ACMS Masters student and intern Muluti Phiri blogs about the Asijiki Coalition AGM’s sex work city tour of Cape Town. Photographs also taken by Phiri. Featured image is of a piece of art at the National Art Gallery made up of the different types of HIV treatment medication bottles.

Actioning the decriminalisation of sex work campaign for 2017-2018, networking and exchanging ideas with partner organisations, was the main agenda of the Asijiki Coalition annual general meeting (AGM), which was held in Cape Town recently (13-14th September 2017). Asijiki is a group of sex workers, activists, advocates and human rights defenders who advocate for law reform for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa. The 24 partners that attended the AGM included Sex Workers Education & Advocacy (SWEAT), Sisonke the national sex worker movement, Sonke Gender Justice, Women’s Legal Centre (WLC), Gender Dynamix, Shukumisa, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS).

It was a casual start with a tour to the Central Methodist Mission, Slave Lodge Museum, Parliament and winding up at the National Art Gallery. At the church, it was interesting to listen to a pastor drawing parallels between sex work and the biblical story about a woman who was caught in adultery and how Jesus subsequently responded to a crowd wanting to stone the woman to death by saying, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her” (John 8:7). Pastor Alan Storey likened the story to current difficulties sex workers face and pointed out the hypocrisy of churches by stating that “we use you in the night and condemn you during the day”. He called for churches to work together with organisations working with sex workers, and pledged his continuous support to sex workers.

Slave Lodge Museum plaque about the monument. Centre: The blog author Phiri at the Slave Lodge Museum. Right: Signage at the Banishing Stigma Room.

On the other hand, the visit to the Slave lodge Museum, where in the past (1811 – 1828) enslaved women were kept and sexually abused by soldiers and sailors, was emotionally overwhelming for all the delegates, as the tour guide took us through its history. She clarified the misconception held by many that the slave lodge used to be a brothel. She pointed out that the enslaved women were not sex workers; that they were held against their will and sexually abused. Therefore, there was no agency involved on the part of the women. As can be expected in a slavery context, the women sometimes regarded sex with these men as a means of escaping the Slave Lodge, as sailors would sometimes buy off their ‘freedom’ by taking them along on their sea voyages for entertainment. This colonial legacy of sexual slavery and exploitation still informs how sex workers are (mis)treated today.

Portraits of people from across the world telling their stories about their journeys of living with HIV.

It was a different atmosphere at the National Art Gallery. Entertained with live storytelling from vibrant activists who fight for the eradication of the stigma towards people living with HIV. At first glance of the Banishing Stigma room, one would think you are in a showroom. The room was flagged with different campaign messages against stigma and discrimination. The exhibition included posters of people living with HIV sharing their experiences/struggles of dealing with stigma. A befitting campaign theme Through positive eyes, tells it all. The emphasis is on negative words often used against people living with HIV – pointing out that HIV does not kill, but that stigma does. One of the activists present, Ayanda Denge, shared his life journey of living with HIV, and how stigmatisation of his status almost killed him, but he refused to succumb to it, and actually came out stronger. Indeed, the environment of the Banishing Stigma exhibition room and the HIV activists’ stories exemplified the importance of love and support in humanity, regardless of the disease one is suffering from.

Back at the AGM, the tour provided a foundation for different reflections by participants. Of interest to note was the recognition of the intersectionality of sex work with other spheres of our life. For instance, we cannot talk about sex work without mentioning government, laws, history, agency, geography, religion, freedom, space, migration, etc. All these where demonstrated through the tour.

With the help of advocacy researchers from Sonke Gender Justice, the AGM unpacked the recently released report by the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) on ‘Adult Prostitution’, which states, “the commission is of the view that exploitation, particularly of women in prostitution, seems inherent in prostitution and depends on external factors of gender violence, inequality and poverty and is not caused by the legislative framework in which it finds itself”. The report was strongly criticised for its sole focus on rescuing women and their vulnerability and its lack of engagement with stakeholders.

The meeting resolved to prioritise advocacy for decriminalisation of sex work by strategically targeting government leaders at different public forums, and not just Members of Parliament. It was further agreed that Asijiki members would engage in various advocacy strategies, such as picketing/marching, as well as lobbying the general public through media by highlighting sex workers’ issues and the need for decriminalisation.

Overall, the meeting provided a good forum for partner networking, learning and planning for the future advocacy activities. Such forums, in my opinion, would in future benefit greatly by including practicing sex workers beyond just those represented by sex worker rights’ organisations. This aside, the fight for decriminalisation of sex work seems to be far from over as more work still needs to be done. In this respect, I think broader involvement of many key stakeholders including faith based organisations would have a significant effect on sex workers’ welfare, as was evidenced by Pastor Storey.