‘We’ve had a number of women approaching us asking us for opportunities and ways to exit the sex industry’, says Lauren Jankelowitz, Programme Manager for Special Services and Community Engagements at Wits University’s Reproductive Health and Research Unit (RHRU), in Johannesburg.
‘In Hillbrow there are some things happening in the streets and pavements, but there aren’t places where women are having their haircuts or having their nails done, and yet there are lots of women in the area. And there are women working in sex work who need to look nice, who need to have their nails done. And so, where was this happening?’ asked Jankelowitz.
She says there was a ‘gap’ in the beauty industry and they thought that sex workers could fill it easily. And that’s where the idea of the ‘Beauty Shack’ project emerged from.
‘It came to us through working with our clients who are sex workers, who asked us to engage with them and see if we couldn’t find opportunities for them to leave sex work. And over the last years we’ve been trying a range of different things. We’ve had small scale income generation groups, catering group training and counselling training, and some women have exited. But the numbers are very small’, she explained.
However, past initiatives have failed to permanently keep the women away from returning to sex work.
‘They are not really able to earn enough or to earn the equivalent that they were earning through sex work. So, they come back into sex work. And so, we really wanted to find something that would provide a sustainable exit’, she says of why they thought of the ‘Beauty Shack’ project.
Dineo Senosi from Woodlands Centre for Wellbeing and Spa facilitated the training. She says being part of the project was an overwhelming experience that gave the women practical skills and experience in various aspects of the beauty industry.
‘We got them out to Woodlands working on real clients, got them out to corporate functions to expose them to real clients, and we got feed-back from those people of what they think of the ladies. We actually got to malls like Cresta Mall – we put them there and they did head massages for the people passing by’, she says. ‘They now have another second chance in their lives. They can make something of their lives now. And now they are proud to say: ‘Look, I’m a beauty consultant, I can do nails, and I can do massages’. They won’t be afraid of people looking down on them because now they’ll be walking up high as these beauty consultants’ says Senosi with a proud smile.
Among the trainees is a Zimbabwean immigrant who came to South Africa in search for greener pastures. She worked in small shops in the Johannesburg CBD until the shop closed down. Unemployed, she turned to sex work.
‘I didn’t have any source of income and I was far away from home. Near my workplace I’ve always heard about this place. When I lost my job, I just decided to go there’, she says.
When asked if she has any regrets about the sex industry, the woman replied:
Deep down in my heart I can’t say there’s anything bad as long as you volunteer to be there. I’m not regretting to be there because I went there knowing what I was doing and what I wanted. After seeing that it wasn’t my life, I just wanted something to do besides sex work. I just needed something decent, that’s when I decided that, no, I have to quit’.
She calls the opportunity she has now ‘a dream come true’.
‘I would say it was a dream come true for me because I’ve been always waiting for this opportunity, as you all know that the course on Beauty Therapy is very expensive. And even if I had money to study Beauty Therapy I would not be able to because when you’re sex worker you’re forced to be at work every time’, she says.
‘I’m very happy because at the moment I don’t think I can go back to sex work because I’ve got no reason to go back, I’ve already got what I wanted. Now it’s up to me to use what I’ve been learning here’ she enthuses.