Archives for April 2009

“We have voted but our governments have not delivered”: sex workers speak out and organize

On Wednesday, 22 April 2009, South Africans will head for the polls to cast their democratic vote for the fourth time. With a flurry of pre-election activities: from increased campaigning and media coverage to some comic relief from the likes of Evita Bezuidenhout’s Elections and Erections. Of course when raising the issue of elections and sex work one can expect sexual innuendos like this to flourish. However sex workers across the world have engaged with election processes.

In the run up to elections in the USA last year, sex workers started an election awareness campaign called: “Grind the vote”. This campaign was spearheaded by SPREAD, a magazine by sex workers for sex workers. It raised a list of issues, concerns and demands by sex workers, analysed various political parties’ manifestoes and embarked on extensive voter education with sex workers across the country.

Similarly Indonesia held their elections on 9 April.  According to an AFP article, Indonesia has about 170 million voters eligible and over 38 parties to choose from. What has all of this got to do with sex work? Approximately 50 sex workers were trained by election officials to do voter education with other sex workers and clients. This was in an attempt to engage hard to reach groups in the election process. Interestingly no mention was made of sex workers’ rights or the various political parties’ position on sex work.

In Kolkata, India sex workers attempted to respond to the elections holistically. They lobbied for sex workers to be involved in the election process and they used the opportunity to highlight sex worker demands to political parties and society at large. Durbar Mahila Samanya Committee (DMSC), boasting a membership of 65000 sex workers, approached the chief electoral officer to create the space for sex worker involvement.  Six sex workers in this region will be working at polling booths during the elections. The DMSC heralds this as a step in the right direction in recognising sex workers as equal citizens. In addition the DSMC have been demanding, from political parties, that sex work be seen as work. Sex workers have placed a charter of demands before each political party in the region.

Meanwhile in South Africa earlier this year 153 sex workers from 10 African countries converged at a sex worker conference held in Johannesburg. They released a statement demanding their governments honour the rights of sex workers.

When our governments are campaigning for our votes they say “vote for us and we will deliver “. We have voted but our governments have not delivered. We try to raise our voices about human rights violations that we face on a daily basis, no one listens.  Once we have voted they forget us. From our government we need law reform and the decriminalisation of sex work so that we have the spaces to access our rights. We demand rights and not rescue. 

In Cape Town, sex workers interrogated three of the main political parties on their position on decriminalising sex work. This took place at an event organised by the African Gender Institute of the University of Cape Town, The International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) and the Gender Equity Unit of the University of the Western Cape. The focus of this event was to have an interactive discussion with different political parties on women’s rights, gender justice and their political manifestos. In preparing for this event sex workers met and agreed that they really would like political parties to be clear on their position on decriminalising sex work. Sex workers asked SWEAT to table their question at the event. The ANC representative stated that the ANC does not support sex work and seemed surprised by the audience’s negative response to her comments. The DA implied that they would support the criminalisation of the client. It was not clear if they would support the decriminalisation of the sex worker. The ID clearly stated that they support the decriminalisation of sex work.


(Photo Credit: EWN / Nardus Engelbrecht / SAPA)

The Security of Sex: The (South) Africa Problem

On April 22nd, South Africa will hold its latest round of elections and for the first time in the last 15 years, the African National Congress (ANC) has serious competition.  The upstart Congress of the People, headed by former ANC leader Thabo Mbeki, was created in December to address concerns over corruption in and the direction of the ANC.

Though the ANC is expected to win by large margins, it is clear that South Africa is changing and the extreme violence and poverty are taking their toll on the stance of the historic party.  But what is the actual difference between the parties?  And what would all of this mean for women, sex workers in particular?  With the looming 2010 FIFA World Cup, South Africa continues to be plagued by infrastructural issues as well as climbing rates of violent crime, particularly crime related to violence against women and children.

Over the past year, specifically, there has been a large pattern of “corrective rapes” committed against lesbians; the majority of these acts are committed by gangs of men rather than a single person.  The most notorious of these rapes was committed against one of the most famous female soccer players in South Africa, Eudy Simelane, last April.  She was gang raped and left in a ditch after being stabbed 25 times in the face, chest and legs.  While some focus on homophobia as an explanation for these acts, the brutality and pervasiveness of these acts implies larger underlying issues related to violence and gender. Women of all backgrounds and orientations are being affected by rising violence, which is more and more being attributed to an “increasingly macho culture, which seeks to oppress women and sees them as merely sexual beings.” Lesbians are being targeted in particular because their orientation is seen as antithetical to these gender roles in which women are expected to be more and more diminutive to men.  Attacks such as these are then not specific to sexual orientation but signify a larger social policing of women.

Likewise, trafficking has become a growing specter within South Africa.  Unlike in the U.S., the state is primarily confronted with trafficking occurring between different regions of the country itself. It involves primarily women and children from rural provinces like KwaZulu-Natal and the Transkei into urban areas primarily around Cape Town and Johannesburg.  Trafficking of different populations has risen in recent years for a variety of reasons.  In this instance, I am referring to the trafficking in persons for body parts as well as for the purpose of slavery.  Demand for human potions made from human body parts and progressively younger girls for sexual purposes has risen recently as they have become associated with ‘traditional’ cures for HIV.  Likewise, increases in refugees within South Africa and neighboring countries have made more individuals, children especially, vulnerable to slavery.  Demand for young girls for sexual slavery is expected to rise exponentially for the Cup.  However, focus on trafficking for the Cup ignores the existing gender issues embedded within South Africa itself, while also refusing to distinguish between those migrating to meet the demand and those being violently exploited.  The idea of legalizing prostitution for the duration of the Cup was floated in Parliament in an attempt to regulate sex work and protect workers.  The issue, however, was never meaningfully discussed and limiting legalization to just the Cup would ensure no meaningful change.  Without these things in mind, it is impossible to truly address the issue.

When one considers the platforms of the two major political parties in South Africa, however, it seems as if no attention is being given to violence against women at all.  The ANC mentions women only in passing within their official platform claiming only that they will “combat violence and crimes against women and children by increasing the capacity of the criminal justice system to deal with such violence.”  Does that mean building more prisons or increasing sentences and police?  While the actual meaning of the statement is unclear, the disinterest of the ruling party is quite apparent.  On the other hand, COPE gives a great deal more detail first saying that “workers have rights” and that “workers should have social protection to safeguard income,” which is promising for trafficked workers, and going on to “consider legislation that will make it difficult to withdraw charges on violent crimes and specifically crimes against women and children” and  “establish specialised units to combat identified priority crimes and crime areas in each of the provinces, including crimes committed against women and children”.

Though COPE vaguely mentions the issue more often, neither party acknowledges the growing trend of violence or prioritizes addressing it.  Jacob Zuma, head of the ANC, was even accused of rape himself and the woman was degraded in the courtroom.  Political meetings and platforms deal with women’s issues only nominally, if at all, and certainly do not address issues of violence.  Lisa Vetten, a gender rights activist within South Africa, points out that the system has even gone backwards in recent years with specialized sexual violence and family units being disbanded as well as an increasingly unfriendly court that is more focused on procedure than a victim-friendly orientation.  Likewise, sex work remains unaddressed beyond larger hyperbolic discussions of trafficking and slavery by NGOs and within the larger media.  It is then apparent that women’s safety and work remain on the margins and outside of politics.

(Photo Credit: Gays Without Borders)

Bordering on: citizens, prisoners, exceptions, women

I used to think that all prisoners are political prisoners because they’re `guests of the State’, housed and held in total institutions in which the very least the State was obliged to do was acknowledge the prisoners’ existence and maybe keep them alive. Given the convergent news of this past week, I have had to rethink that a bit.

Four names: Edwina Nowlin, Alberto Fujimori, Jacob Zuma, Gladys Monterroso. Four countries: the United States, Peru, South Africa, Guatemala. If your country isn’t on this list, that’s accidental good fortune. Trust me, it should be. In fact, it is.

A girl is flogged in Pakistan, a video captures the moment and circulates and suddenly everyone is concerned about gender and punishment in Pakistan. Even the Pakistani courts perform concern: “Pakistan’s newly reinstated chief justice has ordered a police committee to investigate the controversial flogging of a teenage girl. Ayesha Siddiqa wonders about the innocence of the sudden gaze, “As the entire Pakistani nation watches video footage of a 17-years-old girl screaming on their television screens during the process of her torture at the hands of the brutal Taliban in Swat, one wonders if the mothers, sisters, daughters and the male members of this nation will ever take time out to think about this system of justice advocated by these men who are not even qualified to interpret the Quran and Sunnah.” She lays the system of Hudood laws squarely on the shoulders of the Zia regime: “In Pakistan in particular where the Hudood laws were formulated under the Zia regime, the objective was not to bring justice in the society but to throttle all forms of justice. In this respect, the Taliban in Swat and those who ruled Afghanistan for some time are Zia’children. They use force arbitrarily and apply laws without the real context to enhance their own power.” Flogging is never `spontaneous’ , never `organic’, and never `gender neutral.’

In the United States, there’s the tale of Edwina Nowlin: “Edwina Nowlin, a poor Michigan resident, was ordered to reimburse a juvenile detention center $104 a month for holding her 16-year-old son. When she explained to the court that she could not afford to pay, Ms. Nowlin was sent to prison. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which helped get her out last week after she spent 28 days behind bars, says it is seeing more people being sent to jail because they cannot make various court-ordered payments. That is both barbaric and unconstitutional.”

This practice is going on all over the country: poor women, and men, who cannot pay the fines, and cannot be the additional fees to the companies that collect the fines, are thrown into jail: mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, strangers. Debt, the not so secret origin of primitive accumulation, built on the backs of the poors, largely people of color, largely women, haunts our world, from Pakistan to the United States and beyond.

Meanwhile, death stalks and storms the corridors and cells of Zimbabwe’s prisons, as demonstrated in a documentary shown this past week. Emaciated prisoners can’t bring the morsel of food to their lips, can’t stand and can’t fall. Hell hole. Death camp. These phrases are too elegant by far for what’s going on. George Nyathi, recently released from the torture of Hami maximum security prison outside of Bulawayo, looks into the mirror now, now that he is `free’, and sees Edwina Nowlin. The young woman in Pakistan looks into the mirror and sees …

I’ll tell you what they don’t see. They don’t see Jacob Zuma, who was exonerated of all corruption charges on Tuesday. They might see Alberto Fujimori, already in jail and sentenced, at almost the same instant that Zuma was released, to twenty-five years for having ordered kidnappings and killings when he was president. Fujimori may be in prison, but he’s powerful. His daughter says she may run for president of Peru, and would pardon her father. There’s no such daughter for that girl in Pakistan, for the prisoners in Zimbabwe, for Edwina Nowlin. There’s no powerful daughter coming to rescue those `suspected of terrorist activities’ being tortured in the prisons of Uganda, of the United States, of everywhere. No powerful kin or kith comes to the rescue of those mysteriously jumping from police vans or prison windows, such as Sidwel Mkwambi, beaten to death by police.

And when Gladys Monterroso, a prominent Guatemalan attorney and activist, was abducted last month, held for thirteen hours, burned, beaten, sexually and psychologically abused, there was no Great Man nor any of his family or cronies, to swoop down and save her. When Fujimori and Zuma and their gang look in the mirror, they see the State, they see State Power. When the rest look in, we see ourselves and those like us, call us citizens, of a nation, of the world, of whatever.

I used to think that prisons demonstrated the limit case of citizenship, that we had to ask why some people were in prison and why others were not. This week has me wondering. Perhaps it’s the other way around. Perhaps we have to wonder how it is that any of us, that anyone you or I meet on the street, is not in prison. Perhaps prison is the crucible of normative citizenship in the world we inhabit, and being-outside, what’s that called again, oh yeah, freedom, that’s the exceptional state. And that would go some distance in explaining why women are the fastest growing prison population and still don’t get counted, still are not recognized. Citizenship. Gladys Monteroso, Edwina Nowlin. Citizens, not exceptions.

CHII CHIRIKUITA : WHAT’S UP? Nine: Women Asking the Hard Questions

Now is the time to question the terms on which we organise our struggles and wage our battles.
Now is the time to claim our citizenship.
Now is the time to do the work that ensures our lasting freedom.
In this time of “transition” in Zimbabwe, we need to be asking the hard questions of ourselves and each other.  We need to organise, hold our structures accountable, make our demands and claim our visions and dreams.  Now.

For if not now, when?  

As women we have already lived through many empty promises and betrayals by men:  be they located within our homes, communities, nationalist movements, newly found states, emerging political parties or that unwieldy, amorphous civil society.  

Our lives as women have deteriorated dramatically in the last decade in Zimbabwe, by now we all know why.  This deterioration has impacted on how we organise.  It has made things harder and more chanllenging.  It has eroded our sense of humanity and community.  The regime has damaged us all, in one way or another.  

But now is the time to be creative in order to do the necessary radical change work. It’s difficult but not impossible. One starting point is articulating the vision of our struggle as women and finding ways to unite around its realisation.  This unity has to cut through the partisan politics, the suspicion, the political jockeying, the donor stangle hold and the organisational forms of this time.

For women in Zimbabwe, the horizon of liberation that was intimately connected to our early feminist agenda’s in the 1980’s and 1990’s was gradually left behind, as many of us started operating with a horizon of the law, policy, of governance and  gender.  Some argue that this was a strategic discursive move but it was at the expense of losing a destabilising power, and women’s organising losing its beating heart. 

Feminist consciousness refers to the political consciousness that the gender roles prescribed by societies all over the world for women are rooted in deep prejudices that put the women at social, political and economic disadvantages. It is the desire to counter and stamp out, through collective action and a broad ongoing cultural conversation, such restrictions imposed upon women. Feminist consciousness might have different roots for different women but the vision is the same.

Feminist consciousness challenges many of our deep-held assumptions which, if are not often noticed, is because they are pervasive like gravity.  Its complexity helps us understand other related oppressions based on race, class, age, sexual orientation, and disability amongst others.

Gender consciousness is the realization that gender is a socio-cultural construction and society has roles, not rooted in biology, specifically designed for those born into the male and female sexes.  But challenging and changing roles is not enough.

Ultimately, gender consciousness and feminist consciousness are related but different concepts.  (But I don’t want to get tangled in words.  Many women around Zimbabwe are engaging in acts of resistence that are feminist, even though they may have never heard of the word.  As long as we share the same commitment to our freedom, to confronting oppression wherever it may be found, let’s move ahead.)

Surely we, including our non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have learnt that gender policies alone ≠ an end to violence, to discrimination, to the bridging of the divides between the public and the private, to a redefinition of our relationships and re-organisation of society where all women can enjoy the fruits of freedom.  Almost always legislative, these policies have lacked financial resources and political will.  They have not altered the foundations of our oppression.  What they have done however, is help to conceal or assuage some of the most detrimental effects of our inequality.

What the so-called gender perspective hides is a total lack of perspective.  It’s a convenient myth that a depoliticised gender perspective will lead to equality and overcome sexism.

Now is the time to be critical.  To get to the heart of the matter.  To think differently.  To confront, unpick, challenge patriarchal and capitalist power in order to make lasting change real for women.

What vehicle is going to allow us to do this?  If our organizational forms are not going to allow us to get where we want to be, then we must be bold enough to say so.  To step out of the shell of the old and into the possibility of the new.

And of course it’s going to be dangerous.  You tamper with power, you feel the effects.

I know.  This is a rant.  It comes from the belief that the gender perspective is not going to get us as far as we need to go.

I don’t have all the answers but my experience tells me that women’s organising in Zimbabwe and the Southern African region needs to politicise.

Politicisation is the (im) pulse running through our organising. “The personal is the political” is a continuous process, a process of transformation which demands time and time again personal engagement, reflection and action.

To put it another way.  Opening spaces, to gather what I call feminist forces is a start.
This can be done anywhere and everywhere. 

It is literally the process of women getting together, telling each other the stories of the conditions of our lives, and crafting collective visions and practices of resistance out of them.  Channelling this into action. 

These autonomous dynamic spaces can ground our actions, visions and desires, thereby providing a basis to craft common ground, and create, rather than presume, a basis for collectivity and alliances. This is a start. 

The sustainability and radical democracy of this process relies precisely on creating new ways of relating to each other that undermine existing hierarchies and the depoliticisation of power inequalities. Also central to this strategy is the need to practice and nurture alliances between different struggles; the linking of scattered resistances cannot be underestimated. 

Much lip-service has been paid to these alliances, often skirting over the hard work they demand in practice. Alliances are about engaging with others, and hence also about dealing with positions invested with power.  These alliances are inevitably based on the involvement of our subjectivities; they are about working with differences and working through conflicts.  Perhaps they are about love. About humanism.  In any case, we cannot render them into abstract models.  But we can find words of inspiration for the yearnings that push us to engage in them. 

Feminism is about a shared engagement, in anger but more importantly in joy, in laughter, in desire, in solidarity. Right now with constitutionalism looming large in Zimbabwe, what we need to refuse, is performing “the woman’s question” within a larger civic or nationalist movement, that can be raised in certain moments of goodwill, only to be dropped later on when it’s time to get back to “the real business” or to have women’s rights relegated to a toothless policy. 

When Adrienne Rich asks women “to see from the centre”, she does so precisely in the context of refusing to be “the woman’s question” or the empty policy.  “We are not the ‘woman’s question’ asked by someone else” she comments, “we are the women who ask the questions.” 

Women need to ask the questions that disrupt, contaminate and create.  However we name them, our struggles are [should be] about nothing less.

(Photo Credit: Research and Advocacy Unit)

CHII CHIRIKUITA : WHAT’S UP? Eight: Where have all the Women Gone?

To play the game you will need: 

  • Dice
  • Minimum of two players
  • Tiddleywink for each player.
  • Roll 6 on the dice to start.
  • Move along the game board and follow the instructions
  • Try to avoid finishing

Inspired by the game “Alternatives to Globalisation” designed by RW.


A rusted wire fence divides the old Zimbabwe from the new.

On the one side lies Effie Malamba, born in 1901 she was buried beneath a granite headstone 90 years later.

On the other is Sylvia Ncube, born in 1974 she was laid to rest just 35 years later.
The wire separates Bulawayo’s old Hyde Park cemetery from its extension.
Effie lies amid ordered ranks of stone epitaphs.
Sylvia lies in a chaos of churned earth. All around her the mounds of mud and stones, garlanded with plastic flowers, tell the story. 

Zimbabwe now has the lowest life expectancy for women anywhere in the world: 34.
A forest of black metal plates mark the mounting death toll and their hand-painted white numbers record the birth dates of a missing generation. Irene Phiri born 1972, Gugu Hlanbangana in 1971, Lulu Olomo in 1975, are just three of thousands.

This cull is not an act of God. It’s Zimbabwe’s game of health, of life, of death.