Sex work no easy life

Date: January 1, 1970
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The article tells the story of a woman who has been forced by the harsh economic realities in the Eastern Cape to venture into commercial sex work. Born in Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape, she moved to Grahamstown in 2005 with the hope of finding a job to help her look after her two children.

This article may be used to:

1. Highlight how poverty sometimes forces women to engage in commercial sexual activities to make ends meet
2. Provide an example of a gender aware article that does not judge the woman for the kind of work she does
3. Show how media can engage with marginalised groups and hear first hand accounts of why they are doing what they are doing
4. Illustrate how media can go beyond just giving profiles of sex workers to try and analyse the underlying socio-economic factors affecting their existence

Trainer’s notes
This story is a first person account of a sex worker, Sithandazile Mahambehlala. This gives her the opportunity to tell her story in her own words without having anyone judge her for what she does. Most media deny women the opportunity to express their views and opinions and instead have men speak for women even on issues that affect them.  This article highlights the fact that women often find themselves economically disempowered because of the unequal gender relations that exist in society. This is because of the gender division of labour where men often find themselves in more rewarding jobs whilst women remain in unfulfilling, lower paying jobs, or with no job prospects at all. In this article, to make the situation worse, Mahambehlala has to take care of her two children with no support from any other family. Women almost always find themselves having to carry the burden of ‘care work’ which they are not paid for.
By sourcing comments from the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), the article puts Mahambehlala’s story in context. The organisation believes that sex work is generally driven by poverty, which generally has a greater affect on women than men. The last paragraph of the story highlights the fact that Mahambehlala’s story is a story of thousands of women across Africa who, because of harsh economic conditions, have been pushed beyond desperation.  Most women will put their lives on the line for their children; Mahambehlala states that she is not afraid of contracting HIV, all she cares about is looking after her children. The article brings out the issue of safer sex among populations considered high risk, and quotes Mahambehlala saying she doesn’t use condoms and doesn’t care to, since most of her clients don’t want to. She appears to know the risks, but is more concerned with her current financial security. Though not stated in the article, this does point to a need for increased awareness around the importance of condom use among men who visit sex workers, as well as the need to help sex workers understand that using condoms can help ensure that they are able to care for their families now and in the future.
Discussion Questions

1. Ask participants of their opinion of sex work.

2. What does the article say about gender and the economy?
3. What do you feel is missing from the story?
4. How else could the story have been written to make it better?
5. Have you ever felt so desperate for money that you have considered doing a job you would not normally do? How did you get out of that situation?
6. Sex workers can generally get more money from a client if she agrees to not use a condom. What does this say about the men who frequent sex workers and what can be done to change their attitudes around safer sex?
Training Exercises
1.       There is a great deal of debate around sex work, with some people arguing it should be stopped, and others arguing that it will never stop, so should be supported. Engage your class in a debate around the issue. Have them think about what types of policies follow from each side and what affect they have on sex workers, for example: the desire to stamp out sex work often leads to policies that criminalise sex work, leading to sex workers being arrested. The desire to support sex work often leads to policies that regulate and legalise it, leading to sex workers working within the protection of the law.
2.       Many countries, especially in East and Southeast Asia, and increasingly in Europe and North America, have seen the formation of mostly informal but highly organised sex workers ‘unions.’ Find out more about these groups. Ask people in your community if they think sex workers unions would be beneficial. Find out from women’s groups if anything like this has been tried or set up in your country.
Links to other training resources
Gender and HIV: A Training Manual for Southern African Media and Communicators

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