'We are all just working girls'

Namhla Tshisela

Namhla Tshisela

Busi knows how dangerous sex work can be.

Dealing with difficult johns who insist on unprotected sex is one hazard all working girls have to contend with.

But Busi has lear nt to defend herself against men who still insist on having sex "flesh to flesh".

"I hide the condom under my tongue and roll it on his penis without his noticing, Busi says.

"This way he finds out he was wearing a condom only after the deed is done."

As a prostitute in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, and head of the Johannesburg branch of the newly launched organisation Sisonke, Busi preaches a "safety first" approach to fellow working girls.

The organisation was launched on Wednesday to "give a voice" to prostitutes and to advocate the legalisation of the sex trade.

Zodwa says: "Punters get aggressive and beat us up if we insist that they use condoms. They will offer more money for unprotected sex."

Zodwa, 27, has been in the game since 2003 when she arrived in Joburg from Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal.

"People think we do sex work because we like it. We do it because we are forced to. Most of us are breadwinners," she says.

"I do it to feed my family and put my siblings through school. I could not afford to put my sister through a R8000-a-year boarding school were it not for sex work."

She is aware of the dangers that come with her job.

"I am scared of getting sick, that's why I always put my life first. I will never agree to having sex without a condom," Zodwa says.

For "extra protection" Zodwa chooses to work at hotels in the city.

"I will pick a guy up in the street but persuade him to go and have sex in a hotel," she explains. "It is safer because the security guards know me and I can always run to them for help."

Sisonke advocates for prostitution to be recognised as professional work that entitles prostitutes to improved working conditions, less exploitation by the police and equal standing with other workers.

The sexual health of the women and their clients is strongly encouraged by Wits University's Reproductive Health and HIV Research Unit.

The unit, through its Women at Risk project, reaches out to prostitutes in Hillbrow, the inner city and brothels by assessing, diagnosing and giving appropriate treatment to prostitutes and their clients.

The unit has a "sex worker-friendly clinic" in Esselen Street, Hillbrow, where prostitutes go to test for HIV, do CD4 screening (for those infected with HIV), screening and referrals for ARV treatment and family planning and cervical cancer screening.