Sex workers often ‘easy targets’ for abuse

Leigh Davids‚ who has been a sex worker for more than two decades‚ faces the same threats almost everyday: harassment‚ assault and rape.

This is the reality faced by many sex workers in South Africa but some do not live to tell the tale. Issues related to the rights of sex workers came under the spotlight during the trial of renowned artist Zwelethu Mthethwa‚ which is currently taking place at the Cape Town High Court.

He is accused of murdering sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo‚ 23‚ in April 2013. Mthethwa has pleaded not guilty and is out on bail.

Last week‚ the trial came to a halt as the authenticity of the CCTV footage expected to reveal the harrowing attack on Kumalo came under fire by the defence. Judge Patricia Goliath will on Monday make a ruling on whether the authencity of this evidence should be dealt with in a “trial within a trial“.

On Tuesday‚ Dr Linda Liebenberg‚ forensic pathologist‚ told the court how the “massive blunt trauma injury” to Kumalo’s liver was the fatal injury. “There was a massive laceration to the liver…her liver was torn in half‚” said Liebenburg. Soon after‚ her testimony was halted due to questions around the authenticity of the CCTV footage of the incident.

Advocacy group Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) records show at least 30 sex workers had been brutally murdered around the country since July. Many are found “strangled and mutilated” with multiple stab wounds.

Davids says the terrain has not improved in her more than 20 years in the trade and not a day goes by when she doesn’t fear for her life. “Up until today I am still afraid‚ I will always be afraid‚” said 36-year-old Davids‚ who got into the industry at the age of 14 after running away from home over a family clash from the fact that she was transgender.

She has faced many incidents of harassment and abuse and was even held at gunpoint by her client. She missed being shot‚ thanks to the quick actions of the pimp who saved her.

“I have been locked up in rooms by clients‚ I have jumped out of moving cars...I get into sticky situations where I have to fight my way out‚” she says.

SWEAT’s records show that of the 30 deaths‚ one sex worker was found with her “breasts and private parts mutilated”‚ another was burned by a client and‚ while another was killed and put in a drum with acid by a client.

The organisation has also documented 697 human rights violations against sex workers‚ which include rape‚ murder‚ assault and harassment by both the police and clients.

But advocacy manager at SWEAT‚ Cherith Sanger said the numbers could be much higher as many of these violations went unreported.

Attorney Stacey-Leigh Manoek‚ from the Women’s Legal Centre‚ said that while they received many complaints of crimes perpetrated against sex workers‚ few of these cases end up in court and even less have led to any arrests of the perpetrators.

She said sex workers were often “easy targets” for abuse at the hands of police and clients. One female sex worker in Cape Town told the centre how one officer ordered her colleagues to give each other oral sex in exchange for not being arrested.

“[The] officer then told my friends‚ to “suck it”...So my friends gave one another oral sex in front of the police officers. When they were done‚ [the police] officer said that he is still going to arrest them and he took all of us to the Durbanville Police Station‚’ she said.

Another said: “Then a police officer unzipped his pants and put a condom on. I got a shock. They started speaking to me rudely‚” said another sex worker. She was then raped multiple times by different police officers

But for Davids‚ despite the fear for her life‚ she said that she “loves her job”.

“Whenever I have been in a situation of violence and I ask myself why I put myself through this‚ but my love for my job steps in and the fact that it financially feeds me and my family‚” she said.

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