Charlene, who turned to sex work when she had to leave the orphanage where she lived when she turned 18.

Charlene was eight when her mother died. She ended up in an orphanage called ‘Ons Plek’ but had to leave once she turned 18.

“I had nowhere to go. I didn’t know about living on the street. A friend told me that she knew how to make a quick buck. ‘A quick buck,’ I thought. ‘OK. I know nothing about that.’ So I went with her. That was how it started. I started to sell myself on the street because I had nothing.”

Charlene speaks quietly, her eyes downcast, a series of crescent-shaped wrinkles rippling across her brow: “You can get someone who hits you, treats you bad. There are rainy days. It’s cold.”

Outreach work

A decade ago, Charlene plucked up the courage to go to Greenpoint Clinic because she had a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and the nurse spoke to her about HIV. She tested, was negative but her interest was piqued. Later, she met outreach workers from the TB/HIV Care Association. Today, the slight, crop-haired woman is a peer educator for the association, and an ambassador for Cape Town’s first clinic aimed at protecting sex workers and people who use drugs from HIV.

Ironically, the clinic was officially opened last week, a day before the SA Law Reform Commission (SALRC) released its report into sex work, almost 20 years in the making, which recommended that sex work should remain a criminal offence.

This finding, contrary to international opinion including that of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), has incensed local organisations dedicated to eradicating HIV.

WATCH: Western Cape Health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo on Sex Workers’ rights


Western Cape Health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo