Sex worker fight turns nasty

2013-12-23 00:00

A SEX workers’ human rights group wants to meet with Glenwood residents to defuse the situation after a series of “anti-prostitution” protests and reports of sex workers being harassed and pepper sprayed.

This follows Friday’s call by the Decriminalisation of Sex Work Working Group (DWG) for residents, councillors and police in Glenwood, Umbilo and Bulwer, not to use violence against sex workers.

“Sex workers are being harassed in Durban,” says Sally Shackleton, director of Sex Workers’ Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat). “Residents’ association’s foot patrols are chasing people using pepper sprays,” she said, and that police were taking “unreasonable actions” such as putting sex workers in vans and then dumping them far away.

The Witness has previously reported claims by residents that some of their neighbours were shooting at prostitutes with paintball guns.

In a statement issued on Friday, DWG (which is made up from representatives of Sweat, Sonke Gender Justice and Sisonke) called upon residents of these areas to “stand up for the rights of sex workers, and to not take part in any violent activities directed towards sex workers”.

“We are worried that residents’ associations are encouraging people to act outside the law. It’s not illegal to stand on a street corner,” said Shackleton, adding that residents are acting is if the “mere presence” was an offence. “This needs to be addressed.”

Heather Rorick, chairperson of the Bulwer Community Safety Forum, said she was “outraged” to be blamed “for any physical abuse” of sex workers by any of the forum members. “Many of us have been threatened by the sex workers themselves or their pimps but we do not allow any type of weapon against these sex workers and are furious over the accusations levelled at us.”

She said the forum was not the only group that does patrols and that some residents had formed “their own little groups and go out”.

Shackleton said she was hoping to organise a meeting with community organisations in the area in the New Year to discuss a way forward. “We would definitely welcome a meeting,” responded Rorick.

Eric Cotton of the Glenwood Community Watch said it was “the first I’ve heard” of pepper spray being used on sex workers. “If any of my members have been doing that they will be disciplined.”

Cotton said his watch patrol the area in cars and when they see sex workers they stop and tell them their presence is “not appreciated”. “We stay there until they get the message and go away.”

Cotton said they also follow the sex workers’ clients when they drop them off and follow them out of the area. “The police are not doing it, the politicians are not doing it, so we are having to do it.”

Rorick said her forum was not against prostitution “but it can’t carry on like it is in Glenwood”. She said that on Friday night prostitutes were openly engaging in sexual activity in a servitude off Craft Avenue. “This is in view of a block of flats. Children can see what is going on. The alley is filled with used condoms. This can’t be allowed to go on in a residential area.”

Shackleton said that Sweat is “looking for more sustainable solutions to concerns the residents have”. She said the issue of harassment is not isolated to Durban. “CMFs around the country are taking actions that could be illegal.”

Shackleton said the law with regard to sex workers is not implementable. “We would like to decriminalise sex work and see a more pragmatic response that protects sex workers and allows for better management of the industry.” This would also allow health and safety concerns to be addressed. She said that sex workers are more likely to be victims of crime rather than people protected behind high walls with security. “They could also be an ally in fighting crime as they are on the streets and see what’s going on.”

Rorick is in agreement regarding the legalisation of prostitution but adamant that the situation in Glenwood cannot be allowed to continue. She said sex workers have been “flashing” to attract business and that “the stench of human waste, urine and the discarded used condoms has become a health problem”.

Councillor for the Glenwood area, Nicole Graham, said her stance on sex workers was unequivocal. “Sex workers are human beings and have the right to be treated with dignity and their rights respected.” She is opposed to them being attacked in any way but says there are “also huge economic consequences” to the current situation in Glenwood and this has led to an “acrimonious” relationship between the community and the sex workers. “They have affected property prices in the area drastically,” she said. “People are moving out of the area or they are selling businesses.

“Ideologically, I’m fine — if people want to sell their bodies for money that’s fine. But not on the pavements or in parks or in front of schools.”

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