Prostitution Is Neither Sex Nor Work, It Is Exploitation

By Mickey Meji

I AM a 39 year old single mother of now three children –  I had four but my eldest son passed away two years ago at the age 21. I was born in Cape Town, the last of three kids and the only girl too.
My mother was widowed when I was born and she was a domestic worker. She struggled to raise us on her own. 
In and around 1994, during the time of the first democratic elections – when most white people thought they would be forced out of the country and fled – my mother lost her job. My mother had been a live-in domestic worker and we were forced to move to the township when her employers left the country. 
Everything changed a lot for us. 
I was exposed to lot of things and had a child at the age of 16 and then another at 19.
Entry into the system of Prostitution
It was one fateful afternoon after having looked for a job for the whole day that I was introduced to prostitution. A vehicle stopped next to me on the side of the road. I still remember it as if it was yesterday. It was a white Ford Escort with a George registration number (CAW). The white man asked me if I was interested in doing “business”.  I didn’t know what he was talking about and then he explained. My thinking was that let me just do it so that I can at least get transport money and no one will know because I am far away from home.
I got into his car and we went to a guest house in Welgemoed. He brought me back in less than an hour and I was R550.00 richer.
You will never believe the excitement at the thought of what I could do with this amount. At the time, the amount could do a lot. I bought some food and went home and I lied to my family and said I had found a piece job.
Return to the streets
I didn’t go back to the streets until a few months later when my mom owed one mashonisa (loan shark) and could not pay. The community then decided that they were going to sell our shack to pay the debt. I then remembered the incident of a few months back with my first “client” and it was then that I decided to go back to that area with the hope to meet the man again or find others who may pay me so that I could use the money to pay my mother’s debt.
This time I went “prepared” with a few condoms.
And yes there were men who were willing to pay me for sexual activities in return for money. I came back having raised the entire amount of R1165.00. I went to negotiate with the community leaders to give me time to repay the money even though I had the entire amount. I knew paying it in one go would create suspicion among the community leaders as to where I got it from. And so I lied and claimed that I had found a job and asked for ten days within which to pay the debt and indeed I did. 
Being hooked into the prostitution system
With all the things we needed in the home and for my kids and Christmas coming up, I decided I would return to the streets but gave myself a timeframe of a month….at the most. I wanted to buy my kids some Christmas clothes and other goodies. 
But nine years later I was still trapped. It was easier to get in than getting out. While I was now able to feed my family, what I was going through at the hands of the men was life threatening. 
Decriminalising Vs Abolishing Prostitution
I was then approached by SWEAT (Sex Worker Education & Advocacy Taskforce) who, after interacting with me and noticing that I had a good command of the English language, decided that they wanted to use me to advocate for prostitution to be recognised as work and its decriminalisation. One of the benefits my mother received from her bosses was having her children sent to good schools.
At the time I thought okay, I will take this job even though I didn’t and still don’t believe that prostitution is work. I was not even proud of it and I found it extremely difficult to tell my children including my mom where I worked whenever they asked me questions like “mommy where do you work”.
The job at SWEAT at least gave me a way out of these difficult and embarrassing questions. I could at least show them an office and point out my colleagues. I then took on the job, which also required that I be out as a “sex worker”. I lied at home and said I was just doing this for the job.
Even though I was not proud, this proved to be safer than being on the streets with strange men. I worked there until 2012 and during that time I would go to the streets sometimes when the need arose and I was short of cash.
It was in 2012 that I realised that the position they are advocating for is not what will benefit women. In fact it will not change anything as it does not address the fundamental issues of why we get into prostitution. I didn’t do this by choice but because of circumstances.
At this point, I then decided to investigate other legal options. I was aware of the various legal options at this stage. I took out a pen and listed them all.
I also listed all the things or dreams I had growing up and those of the women that I had stood with in the streets. I started ticking the boxes of the legal options which would work for those being prostituted. I came to the conclusion that the Equality Model, then known as the Swedish Model, which criminalises all aspects of prostitution with the exception of the person that is being prostituted would be the best model. It supports the exit from the prostitution system and promotes the investment in women and girls to prevent entry and return to the system of prostitution.
I decided then that I needed to find an organisation that endorsed the Equality Model as opposed to those that advocated for the decriminalisation of prostitution and the promotion of it as work. At the time all women’s organisations were in support of decriminalisation and prostitution as work.
For four years I pondered with what to do until I remembered that there was an organisation Embrace Dignity, a feminist human rights abolition organisation founded by former deputy minister of health and defence Ms Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge and I approached her. Initially I thought they could assist with exiting prostitution but I soon discovered their focus is on advocating for law reform and abolition of the system of prostitution.
Kwanele – Enough is Enough
Embrace Dignity however, lacked the voices of survivors and with their support, I established a a movement which encompasses survivors of the system of prostitution. It is called Kwanele, one of its kind in Africa. We now have a presence in seven provinces. We don’t have a presence in Free State and  Northern Cape.
Ultimately what we really need is to find strategies that ensure that girls and women do not enter this industry through economically empowering prostituted women and girls and to have the system of prostitution abolished. 
I will elaborate further in future columns on the two organisations I have set up in the fight against the system of prostitution. 
Nomonde Mihlali Meji better known as Mickey Meji is a survivor of the system of prostitution and is currently working on rebuilding her life following nine years of being in the streets of prostitution. She has been totally off the streets for the past 5years now. 
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