In August, Statistics South Africa released figures showing that while South Africa had technically evaded a recession, the country had only shown marginal economic growth in the year’s second quarter. But sex workers in Mpumalanga say they have felt the effects of a difficult economy that they say is driving down profits.
Sex worker Sibongile Luphoko said Mpumalanga and Gauteng clients used to net her about R1800 a week. Not so anymore.
“Now I am struggling to even make that same amount a month,” she told OurHealth. “Now most clients refuse to pay even R50 per service but rather pay R30 to R20.”
Some say the economic climate is driving fiercer competition in a battle for clients that can turn violent.
Thandi,* 17, recently began working as a sex worker. She alleges that other sex workers almost beat her to death on her first night after she took in more clients than they did.
“A few women in the group suddenly (started acting like) jailers because I was making more money,” she said. “One of the women, whom they claimed was the boss, started demanding my money.”
“I refused to give her the money, and that’s when the beating began,” she said. “I remember crying and asking my neighbour to help me because she was the one recruited me but she was nowhere to be found.”
Zodwa Lubisi, 43, claims she witnessed the beating
“I have been working in the prostitution industry almost half my life,” said Lubisi, who added she was not surprised that other women saw Thandi as a threat. “To be honest things have changed and now our clients would rather pay for someone young and fresh – to them a woman like me is a last resort.”
Money may be short but risks are not
Increased competition is only the latest threat in a line of work that continues to put sex workers at risk of violence at the hands of clients as well as HIV.
For Promise Ngobeni, the risk of contracting HIV is one she knows all too well after losing her parents to AIDS-related illnesses at a young age. She began selling sex at the age of 15 years.
“I joined group of teens and started going to night clubs looking for easy money,” said Ngobeni, who began working out of Nelspruit’s H2 club in May 2012. “If clients refuse to put on a condom on – even though some are HIV positive and some have sexually transmitted infections (STIs) – you cannot force them because that client can report you to the boss.”
“You may lose your job or your boss can beat you to death,” she added. “Some of us joined the prostitution industry HIV negative but now we are HIV positive.”
“We have learned to be not afraid of HIV and STIs because we are used to them,” Ngobeni said.
*Name changed to protect the identity of the child