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Kholi- Sisonke: 'Consent Should Not Be Illegal'

Yearly the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) brings together, apart from official UN delegations,  thousands of women human rights defenders, activists and feminists, either online or in person. WO=MEN publishes the stories of some of these amazing women. 
This is part 5: Kholi Buthelezi, founding member and National Coordinator for Sisonke- which means togetherness- an organization by sex workers for sex workers.

Also read part 1: Mela Chiponda, Our lives are tied to the land;  part 2: Lara Jesani: 'For those who fight this system, there are consequences'; part 3: UN Representative Enaam Ahmed Ali: ‘We All Want to Feel At Home’ and part 4: Marianela Mejía: ‘Without Our Land, We Have No Culture’
Stories by Makena Ngito 
We need support. We need support in our everyday lives, like when you run out of salt and need to borrow some from your neighour. Or when your car stops in the middle of the road and a fellow driver helps you start it up. 

In this same way, we need support to exist. We need support to fight. We need support to be granted our rights.

My name is Kholi Buthelezi, founding member and National Coordinator for Sisonke- which means togetherness- an organization by sex workers for sex workers, initiated in 2002 and formed in 2003 to deal with abuse cases against sex workers and respond to other issues they were, and still are facing, with the aim of improving their living conditions. This work is my life. It is my everyday fight till we achieve equality, and aren’t treated as badly anymore.

Before I continue with my call for support, I want to let you know why it’s so important. In South Africa, a country where marijuana use has been legalized, and abortions made legal- which are all amazing strides on the path to freedom for black people, and everyone in general- sex workers are still on the path to decriminalization. 

Here, it is illegal to participate in sex work, whether you are the buyer or seller, and to also live off the earnings from sex work. This is from a colonial law that was put in place in 1957, then further amended to also make procuring the services of a sex worker illegal. Even knowing someone who is a sex worker and not reporting them to the authorities is a crime!

Now, it’s easy to look at this from one angle, where it’s only the sex worker suffering, but we forget that laws like this also put the worker’s family in peril, since there is no income coming in, thus paying rent, buying food and paying for school fees becomes impossible.

The ripple effect of this goes even further.
Criminalizing sex work makes it harder for the workers to protect themselves from violence inflicted on them by the police who arrest them and ask for hefty bribes or coerce them into having sex in exchange for their freedom, from clients who want to get the services without paying for them, or put the worker at risk of contracting diseases or an unwanted pregnancy by refusing to use a condom, or stealthing, which is the act of removing the condom during sex without the knowledge or consent of the other person, and generally from a society that likes to stand on a false moral high ground. The sex workers can’t report these cases because their work is already criminalized, so how will I, as an illegal worker, go report a case of violence against me while I was in the middle of doing this illegal work?

This criminalization also further accelerates cases of crime, domestic violence, drug use and abuse, rape, abuse of minors, corruption, increase in poverty levels, inability to have decent worker/ labour rights human rights violations, increases the spread of HIV/AIDS, and makes it harder for sex workers to seek legal aid. It generally creates a very unsafe environment for everyone to live in, and not just the sex workers being so heavily discriminated against.

I can further explain all these points, and show you how all these things are interconnected to form a wide web that affects all of us. And also because this is something I’m passionate about, and I no longer want to see anyone else suffer for having consensual sex with a fellow adult, making an honest living and not disrupting anyone’s lives.

And also, this is where I can explain why we so crucially need your help. 

Yes, you. Feminist organizations. And yes, you, labour movements. And yes, again, you, all other organizations that can come and hold our hands on this. We need you. And you have supported us before, you have helped us in numerous ways, and now we’re so close to the goal. So close to getting our basic human rights. So, shall we?

When I say that cases of domestic and sexual violence are on the rise due to criminalization, I can better show it by telling you how bad the COVID pandemic hit sex workers in South Africa. There was close to zero work for us, what with lockdowns, curfews and economies collapsing. So now sex workers were stuck indoors with abusive partners who would hurt them simply for not bringing any income to the house anymore.

We had migrant sex workers being arrested for staying in the country too long, or breaking other immigration laws, thus being harassed by the police.

When sex workers are arrested, the police have no regard for their safety, and throw them in cells with men, where their chances of getting raped or sexually harassed are high.

Sex workers have no rehabilitation centers to turn to when they want to get off drugs. They can’t access basic healthcare services for STD testing, receiving P.E.P drugs or ARVs, for counselling, or to remove unwanted pregnancies. 

Despite the fact that South Africa’s bill of rights is one of the most comprehensive and inclusive in the world, and states that the State cannot discriminate against anyone on any basis, from gender, sexual orientation or profession, we find that sex workers are not protected under this bill since sex work is considered to be criminal work. If we were recognized by the state as a legal profession, we wouldn’t see the cases that we do now where brothel owners exploit sex workers by overworking them for very minimal pay. And dismissing them from work without any valid reason. These sex workers have nowhere to turn to since there are no labour rights to protect them.

And now, to the issue that makes me ask for more participation from other organizations.


It is not trafficking, it is not exploitation, sex workers were not forced into it after being abused. 
Sex workers can choose to join the profession, without any force, coercion, or other reasons that society likes to pin on us in order to dehumanize us. Phelister Abdallah from Kenya has spoken about this extensively. Not viewing sex workers as a pity project, or attaching stories to them to sensationalize them. Sex work can be a choice.

Now, when we talk about trafficking, we automatically link it to sex work. Which in itself is a huge problem. 

Trafficking means using force, abuse or coercion to move someone from one region to another, to get them to do something they do not want to do. 

Sex work is when consenting adults exchange sexual services in return for financial compensation.
This line seems to be blurred for a lot of people, and anti-trafficking movements have made things very hard for the sex work industry, unlike in India where these movements will reach out to sex workers to assist them in solving a trafficking case, especially when it involves minors, because we all do not condone abuse of any kind towards children, especially since a lot of us are parents. 
Some feminist organizations have furthered this by carrying the aforementioned negative notions that sex workers are not doing this work willingly, and this savior mentality needs to end.

We do not want to be saved. What we want is to have equal rights to work. 

What we want is to have these women support us, their fellow women. What we want is to be included in conversations regarding our rights, we want to be invited to these spaces and have our voices heard, not be represented by someone who does not know our lived experiences. The powers that be have to listen to our needs, and the only way is for them to hear them directly from us.

We want to have respect.
We want to be able to obtain legal aid and healthcare services like any other citizen.
We want safer work environments for ourselves.
We no longer want to be one of the statistics in HIV/AIDS reports.
And, we want our basic human rights to be granted to us, as they already should have.

So, will you join us on this journey? Come on board and offer us unconditional support? Include us in spaces, conversations and organizations?

Will you help us fight?
About the author:
Being a writer is basically hearing the softest of words and noticing the little things that go unsaid. Because words for me exist outside of letters and speeches. They’re in the air we breathe and carried by the wind just like the songs that birds sing. Words are still words even when they get caught in our throats or trapped in our minds. They’re an escape when we need to create new realities and the fuel for uprisings and revolutions. I guess that’s why I write, because these little letters on a page hold more power than we could ever know, and I am honoured just to deliver their message.
Atria and WO=MEN are jointly responsible for the coordination of input from civil society to the governmental delegation during the 66th session of Commission on the Status of Women in New York. Follow us on Twitter: @AtriaNieuws and @genderplatform.
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