“We want our children to see their mothers are sex workers and be proud.”
To the vast majority of people, this statement would not sit well. Sex work might be the oldest profession in the world, but the mere idea of discussing its virtues is completely at odds with what society deems acceptable.
That these words stem from a 38-year-old mother of four would be further cause for disquiet. Parents, and especially adult women, are simply not expected to say such things.
Which is why Duduzile Dlamini says them.
As a founding member of Mothers for the Future, an organisation providing aid and support to mothers working in the sex industry, she is determined that the stigma attached to the trade be removed through decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa.
Ms Dlamini was one of the keynote speakers at a Mother’s Day celebration held at the offices of the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT) in Observatory, last week, where other mothers in the industry spoke openly about the challenges they face both on the streets and at home.
The event was also used to launch the short film, Sex Worker Superheroes, in which these mothers give emotional testimony about their lives.
Mothers for the Future, which is backed by SWEAT and the Sisonke Foundation, performs an outreach function for sex worker mothers across South Africa. It educates them on birth control and family planning, looks at ways in which their children might receive a good education and assists them in obtaining child grants.
“When we first started out, we had 15 mothers in the programme. What we found was that none of these women had told their children they were sex workers,” Ms Dlamini said.
“In most cases, these children had learnt about their mothers’ profession from neighbours, who told them what they were doing was bad. And the mothers were so embarrassed.”
She said she found this situation “completely unfair”.
“If you are going to call us criminals for what we do, then surely Shoprite or Vodacom should also be criminalised as well, because we spend our money with them, buying food and airtime which we need for our business.
“We call on all South Africans to help us get sex work decriminalised.”
A question-and-answer session with four sex workers also gave insights into their world, which, while dangerous at times, was one they found worked best for them.
A sex worker who wanted to be identified only as Nobuhle, said she saw herself as a survivor.
“As a mother I have to think about my children all the time, and that makes it hard. Some of us also support more than one household, and that can make things even more difficult,” she said.
“Sometimes you go out to work on a Friday and you are excited because you will make enough money to cover everything you will need at home, but then you get locked up by the police for the weekend. Then you worry about your children, because they are all alone at home and you also won’t be able to provide for them.”
She said by decriminalising the profession her situation would be greatly improved.
“I think what many people don’t understand is that I am not just a sex worker. I am a member of my community. I go to church, and I pay my bills. I do sex work for my family, nothing else. Right now, I am paying for my brother’s fees at university. So I am proud that I am able to do this.”
Another sex worker told the audience she was 53 years old, and was responsible for her grandchildren as her own children had died.
“I am old now, and I am about to retire. The clients only want the young girls. How am I going to look after myself and my grandkids?”
Ms Dlamini said if sex work were decriminalised, this woman would be able to apply for a provident fund, but as it stood at the moment there was no chance of that. During their testimonies, many of the women were moved to tears. They believe they are being victimised by a system that does not address their concerns.
However, there were also lighter moments, culminating in a series of skits in which the women played out common scenarios that occurred at home. The sex workers relished the opportunity to dress up and show their acting skills, which were also well received by the audience.