Sex workers fear missing out

2010-05-24 23:06

Johannesburg - Like other Johannesburg prostitutes, Zandile dreamt of getting rich from World Cup fans.

Now she complains that foreigners will be scared off by fear of Aids and crime and there will be no World Cup bonanza.

South Africa has the world's biggest HIV case load, with 5.7 million cases, and foreign fans have been repeatedly warned in their home countries about the dangers of casual sex.

Last year, some officials warned that 40 000 sex workers would invade this country from around Africa, but with the tournament only weeks away, the reality looks very different.

"It's great that the World Cup will be held here... I just wish we could have a bit of the pie," said Zandile, who works the streets of Sandton, one of Johannesburg's richest suburbs and a glitzy hub for entertainment and business.

Zandile and her colleagues fear the refusal of authorities to create safe areas for prostitution during the tournament will make it nearly impossible to attract clients.

"Foreigners and tourists don't like to look for the girls on the streets," said Mudiwa, a sex worker from Zimbabwe.

"The government needs to create a safe space for us, so that the customers know where to find us. When you get into a car, you never know if you'll be able to see your child again."

Some politicians last year called for the creation of protected areas for prostitution during the World Cup, following examples of zones designated during the last edition of the tournament in Germany in 2006.

Instead, cities such as Cape Town have preferred to clean up the streets, following New York's zero tolerance approach to crime.

Advocacy groups also unsuccessfully urged the government to put a moratorium on prostitution-related arrests.

"There are so many logistical and political issues inherent in the World Cup that sex work is very low on the agenda... it's politically much more expedient to ignore the problem than to deal with it head on," said Marlise Richter, a researcher who collaborates with sex worker advocacy groups.

Germany changed its criminal law around sex work ahead of the event, but in South Africa "that opportunity has been wasted", Richter said.

The host cities have few plans for how to protect sex workers or their clients, saying that with prostitution still illegal, they were limited in what they could do.

Sibongile Mazibuko, the head of the World Cup team for Johannesburg, said the city would make condoms available, but had no plans for how to deal with the issue otherwise.

"We can't give them shelter because we can't be part of a crime... we can't have a banana republic that creates laws for an event for one month," she said.

The scourge of Aids is also a powerful deterrent.

"People see us as breeders of Aids, and that kills the business for us," said Mpho, another Sandton street girl.

Due to its clandestine nature, the number of sex workers in South Africa, the continent's economic mecca, is difficult to ascertain, with many operating from city brothels or suburban homes and some at high-end apartments, catering almost exclusively for foreign clients.

Others, like Zandile, try their luck on the streets, despite constant fear of violence, abuse and arrest.

"Police will abuse us. They will take us to the police station and will ask for sex. Or they will say 'girls, let's talk... that's to see if we can talk money," she told Reuters.

Prostitutes, especially those working the streets, are prone to being sexually and physically attacked. Others, who are pimped by gangsters or organised sex syndicates, are often at the mercy of criminals who also supply drugs.

"Presently the industry is regulated by criminals and 2010 offers those criminals opportunities to get away with very serious crime on a larger scale," said Eric Harper, Director of the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force (Sweat).

It is unclear if demand for paid sex will rise significantly during the June 11-July 11 tournament.

Some new arrivals from Zimbabwe, Botswana and other neighbouring states have been spotted lining up along Johannesburg's streets, but nowhere near the tens of thousands of prostitutes predicted by some officials last year.

Abikanile said she was one of a dozen who had hitchhiked down from Malawi in hopes of making money from players and fans.

"I was told I could make in a week what I would earn in a year back home, so why not?" the 35-year-old housewife said.

Yet if last year's Confederations Cup, a rehearsal for the World Cup, is anything to go by, business might be slow, Zandile said.

"I only had one customer from the games... but at least I was then able to pay my rent that month," she said.

Prostitution is a crime in South Africa and attempts to at least partially legalise it may take years.

Activists argue that decriminalising the trade would protect sex workers and clients, ease their access to health care and help to contain the spread of HIV.

"The criminal law stigmatises the profession, creates barriers to reporting gender-based violence and gives clients an immense amount of power over sex workers," Richter said.

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