Sex workers in Roodepoort in the west of Johannesburg have spoken out about the unintended consequences of the national lockdown on their livelihood. The lockdown imposed in South Africa from the end of March hasn’t only disrupted the economic activities, shedding thousands of jobs, but it also left many struggling to put food on the table, sex workers included. Three sex workers spoke to Newsnote on condition of anonymity about the lockdown challenges.
A 44-year-old mother of two from Welkom in the Free State said she has been a sex worker for 15 years after she lost her job as a waitress. But what pushed her to the streets is the need to provide for her family. “Someone told me about this job. Then when I started working, I realized I can provide for myself because I’m making good money," she said. But it comes with the risks. She said sex workers face so many challenges daily.
“Everyday is a risk, but we look out for each other and when our customers come we make sure to go with them where there’s security guards so we can ask for help when things go wrong,” she said. This sex worker said some customers exploit sex workers.
”Sometimes someone takes you to a place like a park then refuses having sex using a condom and after that he doesn’t pay and takes the money you have made all day," she said, adding that at the beginning of her doing this job one lady disappeared and was found dead months later.
A 31-year-old lady sex worker with 10 years of experience said she had a tough upbringing with an absent father and that contributed to her ending up on the streets in search of greener pastures. “I left home with my friend looking for a job. But it took a long time without getting anything but she knew about this part of Roodepoort and we came to do the job,” the mother of one said. She told Newsnote that she was once left in the street naked.
The 31-year-old said the COVID-19 lockdown has disrupted their livelihood in a big way, even when the alert levels went down and relaxed some restrictions. “It disrupted us, because this is our livelihood. When we are in lockdown in the house you find you don’t have money to buy food and we have children, then you are forced to ask from neighbours," she said. The lockdown meant they worked fewer hours, resulting in little income.
“Even police didn’t want us to be outside after 8pm, after arriving around 4pm or 5pm,” she said. A third sex worker from Lesotho says people take advantage of them because they know they can’t report the perpetrators to the police. “One person paid me R350 but dropped me on the road at 4am and took that money and my phone. I had to ask for R10 just to get home,” she said. Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) spokesperson, Katlego Rasiditse, said even in 2020 sex workers were still targeted and harassed.
“You will never find a policeman arresting the buyer of sex even though in 2020 the law says the buyer must be arrested. The focus is always on women who sell sex because the police can’t profile the buyer of sex,” Rasiditse said. Sweat estimates there are between 121 000 and 167 000 sex workers in the country.