Durban – Durban sex workers who fall under the Sisonke national movement are expected to attend the 21st HIV/Aids conference to be held in the city’s International Convention Centre this month.
They have made a desperate plea to be accepted by the public. Three who spoke to Independent Media this week outside the Sisonke national movement offices in the Diakonia Centre said they were irritated and distressed by public comments criticising their occupation.
Pretty Maphumulo, 40, Thobeka Khumalo, 38, Gugu Gumede, 50 (not their real names), appealed to the community to accept their work and listen to their voices.
“They should start respecting our work because we like what we do and are not going anywhere because this brings us a source of income,” they said.
A smart-looking Maphumulo said she was from Ntuzuma and has been a sex worker for more than a decade and she has achieved more than what some men and women have done in their own careers.
When Maphumulo gave details on how she got involved in sex work, her voice trembles. She revealed being sexually abused by her “often drunk” uncle whom she eventually stabbed to death with a kitchen knife when she was 11.
Her rape ordeal started when she was 9, but her mother, then working in Durban North, turned a blind eye to accusations levelled against her brother.
“I’d been left in the care of my uncle, who turned out to be a monster. I was young and vulnerable and became his sex slave for almost two years. I told them at home, especially my mother, but nobody would believe me.
“On that particular night I prepared myself for his advances. I armed myself with a knife under a blanket. When he came I was ready and I stabbed him in his chest in full rage. I lost count how many times, but he died on top of me.”
After that incident Maphumulo disappeared from home for years and met new friends who taught her about the profession.
She claimed that despite being ridiculed by her two Gauteng-based sisters her younger brother was the only one who gave her support and respected her sex-work profession.
“He told me that money is the same, whether you are a lawyer or a prostitute. It doesn’t matter. Two years back I was able to give my mother a decent burial after I took up a funeral policy.
“Had it not been for my hard work my mother would have been buried like a pauper because the very same people who were so judgemental had no money.
“I have a family of five, my two sons and nephews and nieces. They are all at school because I’m able to pay for their school fees and buy them a loaf of bread each morning, just like any other parent.
“I could be driving a fancy car just like other colleagues, but I opted to give my sons a decent education. My eldest son is in his second year at varsity and is in the engineering field. He doesn’t know what work I do,” Maphumulo added.
Meanwhile, Gumede, from Durban central, added that they were not encouraging youngsters to become sex workers – but they wanted those who had entered the profession to be protected.
Gumede has been a sex worker for the past 20 years and spoke about the physical threats they face in their daily work.
“We want our voices to be heard during the conference. We don’t want people judging us. There are children we send to school and we support our families through the money we get. We like our job. They call us filthy names.
“But the input and support from groups such as Sweat (Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Taskforce), a subsidiary of the Sisonke national movement, have done tremendously well to create awareness and protect us from the police,” said Gumede.
Sometimes clients pay upfront but there are cases where they refuse to pay for their services.
“They take us back to the pick-up point, which puts our lives at risk as we have to walk in the dark alleys back to our site.
“We have extended families whom we look after because their parents have died because of the HIV/Aids pandemic. We want the community and government to be aware that, as much as they despise our form of work, we are providing for our families.”
Khumalo, from Lamontville, also relayed her sad story: that one of her clients had refused to pay for her services and had left her in the Mhlathuzane bush near Chatsworth after threatening to kill her.
“Both the police and our clients have been taking advantage of us because we seem vulnerable since we cannot protect ourselves.
“Recently, I escaped death after a client with whom I’d had sex pulled out a gun and threatened to shoot me on the spot.
“He then left without paying me. I was angry but couldn’t report this to the police because of the criminalisation laws attached to our profession. We are sometimes raped by clients,” she added.
“Sisonke has been offering us free female condoms and workshops which help to minimise double infection. Some of us are on antiretrovirals (ARVs). Through the NGO’s intervention we are able to get drugs without being discriminated against by nurses and members of the public when collecting our medication from clinics and hospitals,” she said.
KwaZulu-Natal Sisonke spokeswoman Nomusa Jili confirmed that they have been given a platform during the conference to voice their human rights concerns.
“The world should know that we are still discriminated against as sex workers in this country. This platform will bring us together and we appeal to others to come to our offices for help when discriminated against,” Jili said.