The Double Stigma of Migration and Sex Work

“From a migrant’s perspective from another country you face a double stigma as sex workers first because you are from another country, second because you are a sex worker in a country where sex work is criminalised” said Lindah, a Zimbabwean sex worker living in Limpopo.

Lindah was representing the Sisonke Sex Worker Movement at the the Policy dialogue on Migration, Sex Work and Health in South Africa hosted by the Johannesburg Migrant Health Forum (JHB-MHF) and the Migration and Health Project (maHp) Southern Africa at the the Worker’s Museum on the morning of Wednesday 9th November. The dialogue aimed to address the intersections of sex work and migration, both across and within borders.

Attendees included Sisonke members, the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants South Africa (CoRMSA), LifeLine Johannesburg, the Women’s Legal Centre  (WLC), Amnesty International, and the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), Wits Reproductive Health Institute (WRHI), among several others.

The targeting and harassment of foreign national sex workers by police, the neglect of the intersections between migration and sex work in policy and programming, and the critical need for the decriminalisation of sex work, were recurrent themes at the policy dialogue. The dialogue also raised critical concerns around the livelihoods of migrant sex workers, and the legal battles they face.

“Why do we migrate, coming to another country?” Lindah asked, “It’s because of poverty or to seek greener pastures. Most migrant women are vulnerable because we are mothers; are breadwinners for the family’s income. We come here to look for greener pastures.”

She raised the critical issue of police in exacerbating this double stigma facing foreign national sex workers by recounting a personal experience.

“I come from a border town where we have a lot of migrant sex workers from across the country. Mostly you get to be known that you are sex worker. I once went to a police station to assist a friend and upon arriving there we started speaking in English and the person assisting us was speaking in Venda and then it was very difficult for us to understand each other. Another came in and said ‘Ay, these one’s where are you papers?’ We were not assisted that very day, and as the case progressed, my friend had an asylum [permit] and they ended up defacing that asylum, saying ‘you came here as a refugee now you are doing sex work?’ They did not want to open that case.”

Sisonke aims to serve as an umbrella organisation uniting South African and foreign national sex workers struggling for the decriminalisation of sex work.


Anti-migrant sentiments meet sex work stigma

The policy dialogue took place under the cloud of the election of Donald Trump as the president of the USA on the same morning.  Both the opening remarks by Thifulufheli Sinthumule of CoRMSA and the JHB-MHF, and the opening presentation by Rebecca Walker of ACMS raised how Trump’s bigotry and anti-migrant sentiments were acutely relevant to the day’s discussions and represented global concerns.

Walker highlighted the safety and livelihood concerns around migration and sex work.

“Within South Africa a country with high levels of cross border and internal migration, sex work often constitutes an important livelihood for migrants” she said, stressing the need to challenge the binary of sex workers as either agents or victims, and attend to the complex contexts shaping sex work.

She emphasised that “sex work” needs to be understood as a legitimate form of labour chosen by consenting adults, a definition not encompassing those forced or coerced into the trade. She clarified that migration is not only about foreign nationals but also about experiences of mobility within borders.

Walker also noted the lack of policy work and development around migration and sex work. She highlighted that the recent National Strategic Plan for HIV Prevention, Care and Treatment for Sex workers made no reference to migration as an example of the critical lack of policy attention to the issue.

She emphasised that much of the data on trafficking in South Africa is based on “methodologically unsound research”, and that policy was made on bad evidence and often drawing on problematic assumptions that position sex work as synonymous with human trafficking. She also noted the lack of knowledge around migrant, male and transgender sex workers.

Mosima Kekana from WLC highlighted the complex legal issues facing sex workers in their interactions with the police and the struggles for decriminalisation.

She noted that as sex workers, are often targeted by the police through by-laws such as soliciting, being a nuisance or source of danger, and even for carrying condoms as evidence of doing sex work. She highlighted that foreign nationals were also targeted for not having adequate documentation. Kekana noted that even when she was representing sex workers who were arrested, she was verbally abused by police officers as being the “queen of oomarhosha” – a derogatory term used for sex workers.

Kekana explained the difficulty of challenging the police abuse of sex workers.

“The problem is you have a good case, but when you go look for clients they are on the move, and sometimes sex workers are not able to enforce their rights,” she said, “Sex workers are afraid to report cases, they run away. Sex workers are not able to report crimes against them.”

She stressed the major struggle ahead to re-launch a Constitutional Court challenge for the decriminalisation of sex work, and the difficulties in attempting to challenge the Constitutional Court ruling “Jordan vs the State” which found that “the decision as to how to regulate prostitution is a matter primarily for the Legislature.”

Filling the gap of psycho-social services

A representative from WRHI Nokunceda Mabuza spoke of the intervention they are running, offering a sex work clinic in Hillbrow which provides services like antiretroviral treatment of HIV/AIDS and treating sexually transmitted infections. She also said that WHRI did outreach work going to different brothels and unlawfully occupied buildings to provide information.  Connie Mahange from the counselling service LifeLine Johannesburg noted that they were starting a sex work programme in order to deal with daily traumas faced by sex workers.

The issue of competition and exclusion among sex workers was raised. Katlego Rasebitse, a representative of Sisonke, noted that “there’s a lot of competition between local and migrant sex workers, it happens almost  everyday when someone from a foreign country comes to a hotspot, they might be charged a bottle of whiskey or an entry fee. There’s a perception that kwerekwere’s are cheaper than those familiar with negotiating with clients.”

He said that Sisonke tries to negotiate between South Africans and migrants: “We are all selling sex, regardless if you’re yellow bone, or fully figured, or a migrant, we all selling sex.”

Another sex worker in the audience explained, “Sex workers they fight, even if you are South African and migrate to another place, there is a fight, but the fight doesn’t end up being xenophobia. You fight when you go to a new place, but when you pay what you need to pay, everything is settled, just like a sister in the house.”

Jo Vearey – coordinator of maHp – closed the dialogue stressing the need for a continued network in addressing the health and legal needs of migrant sex workers in South Africa. Vearey also asked, “how do we look at decriminalisation and sex work as a space in which the migration act is going horribly wrong?”

The dialogue closed with a tour by the exuberant Rasebitse of an exhibition at the Worker’s Museum of quilts representing the history of Sisonke that were presented at the World AIDS Conference in Durban this year. Through four beautiful woven banners, the story was told of the experiences of sex workers in South Africa struggling for access to treatment for HIV and other health issues, through to the present day struggles for decriminalisation.


About Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon

Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is an Associate Researcher on the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa, based at the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits).

Matthew holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford, which was ethnographic study of HIV/AIDS treatment programmes to displaced communities in northern Uganda. Over the past five years he has conducting research in inner-city Johannesburg on themes of migration, religion, health and housing. He is beginning new research looking at African migration to Brazil.

Matthew has published widely in different books and journals including Medical Anthropology, Critical African Studies and the African Cities Reader, and a number of newspapers and journalistic publications including the Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, Chimurenga Chronic and the ConMag. He is the lead editor of the book 'Routes and Rites to the City: Mobility, Diversity and Religious Space in Johannesburg' to published by Palgrave-MacMilllan.