More than 30 sex workers have been murdered – many of them brutally strangled and mutilated – throughout South Africa during the last year. Earlier this month, Amnesty International joined a growing number of organisations in calling for the decriminalisation of prostitution as the best way to protect the safety of those working in the industry around the world.
On 26 August 2015 the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) launched a new decriminalisation coalition called 'Asijiki'. It aims at undoing the some of the adverse effects criminalisation has had on sex workers and society.
Read: Bloemfontein sex workers live in fear of violence
Unequal before the law?
Receiving money in exchange for sex is illegal under South African law, as is paying someone for sex. Critics charge that this leaves thousands of people working in prostitution extremely vulnerable to abuse and violence from which the rest of the population expects – and routinely receives – legal protection.
By criminalising their profession, whether it is freely chosen or foisted upon them by circumstance, sex workers are effectively turned into second-class citizens exposed to victimisation not only by their clients, but also, and perhaps more shockingly, by the police.
Read: The secret crime of sex abuse
“In 2014,” says Lesego Tlhwale, a spokesperson SWEAT, “there were 697 documented human rights violations, including 65 assaults by members of the SAPS, 5 incidents of theft by police and 329 incidents of harassment by the police”. These figures are likely to be severe underestimates, as many similar incidents simply go unreported.
Image: Poster highlighting the plight of female sex workers
Yet, insists the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC) in Cape Town, the well-being of sex workers ought to be protected by the provisions of the country’s constitution and laws like the Labour Relations Act, an assertion that has been recognised by the courts.
The Bill of Rights ought to guarantee them human dignity and security from harassment as well as the right to equal treatment under the law and the freedom to choose what kind of work they wish to do.
SWEAT and the WLC, along with the Commission on Gender Equality, the Sisonke Sex Worker Movement and Sonke Gender Justice have repeatedly called for national and municipal legislation outlawing the buying and selling of sex to be repealed. These organisations have banded together with other activists to launch the Asijiki Coalition for the Decriminalisation of Sex Work.
According to Tlhwale, “the coalition’s main objective is to work together with the aim of obtaining law reform for the full decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa through advocacy and litigation”.
On an international stage, similar pleas have been made by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, the World Health Organisation and others.
All of these groups believe that decriminalising the profession would not only help to protect sex workers from abuse and violence, but would go some way towards restoring their dignity and human rights while vastly improving their access to public health care and social services as well as the criminal justice system.
The Cape’s dark legacy
Cape Town has a particularly shameful history of sex worker murders and the trend seems to continue – more than ten of the killings reported countrywide in the last year occurred in and around the city.
“Cape Town is by far the worst,” Tlhwale agrees, although she points out that it’s by no means unique and that sex workers are also being murdered in other parts of the country where cases are probably significantly underreported.
Between 1992 and 1996, a notorious serial killer, sometimes referred to as the "Cape Ripper", is believed to have assaulted, tortured and strangled 16 prostitutes and three domestic workers, dumping their bodies across the Peninsula and the Boland. A few years later a further eight Cape Town sex workers were killed. All of the murders remain unsolved.
Last year, former motor mechanic Johannes Christiaan de Jager was convicted to three concurrent life sentences for the rape and murder of 18-year-old sex worker Hiltina Alexander in 2008 and the killing of 16-year-old Charmaine Mare in 2013. Investigators found de Jager’s DNA in swabs found under Alexander’s nails and a police forensic psychologist likened him to a serial killer.
Read: Famous serial killers
In April of 2013, internationally celebrated artist and photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa is alleged to have brutally killed 23-year-old sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo in the Cape Town suburb of Woodstock. During the violent night-time attack he is alleged to have kicked her repeatedly, “stomping her body with booted feet” resulting in “a massive laceration of the liver” which was “torn in half”.
Mthethwa was arrested but released on R100 000 bail. Prosecutors have indicated that the evidence against him includes closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage, data from a tracking device located in his Porsche 911 Carrera and eyewitness accounts.
After multiple delays and postponements, Mthethwa’s trial finally started in the Western Cape High Court in June. In a trial-within-a-trial the admissibility of the CCTV footage is currently being assessed and proceeding are set to continue on the 27th of August.
This violent past and present have had a major impact on Cape Town’s sex worker community. “Most of all it’s resulted in fear,” explains Tlhwale, “but also in defiance to make sure that these cases are not swept under the carpet and forgotten. Sex workers are coming forward to report if their colleagues have been violated or murdered and they are also willing to help the police in making sure that perpetrators are caught”.
Why do they do it?
Why are sex workers so often assaulted and even murdered? What makes the men who beat and murder them act in this way?
Health24.com’s Cybershrink, Prof Michael Simpson, thinks that their position as peripheral members of society greatly enhances sex workers’ risk of a horrible death.
“The main reason prostitutes get killed is probably because they are uniquely vulnerable, which means that their killers may have a better chance of escaping justice. These are marginalised people who tend to steer clear of the police and their disappearance is therefore unlikely to be reported. They’re the ideal victim, and this attracts predators”.
He adds that where sex work is illegal it tends to be more risky as “women need to take their customers to isolated places where they’re less likely to be interrupted” and “the police tend to focus on arresting them as criminals rather than investigating attacks”.
Clinical Psychologist and founder member of SWEAT, Ilse Pauw, agrees: “The women are vulnerable because they are in the client’s space, where he has the control. I also believe that some of the murderers hate women – something that could come from childhood – and that they project this hatred onto sex workers who are frequently seen as immoral, less valuable than others, inferior and deserving of their treatment”.
Video: Special Assignment – Front Line of Fear
To stay up to date with 'Asijiki' happenings on the Asijiki Coalition Facebook page.
Sex workers call on government to decriminalise sex work
Increase in violence towards female sex workers