‘Sex work is real work’ ideology sells out African women

This is an edited transcript of Tsitsi Matekaire’s speech in the morning session at the ‘Students for sale: Tools for resistance’ conference, held in London on 15 October 2022. You can watch the recording on YouTube. Tsitsi’s speech starts at 1:04:50.

Good morning, everyone. My name is Tsitsi, and I work for an organisation called Equality Now. We are an international women’s rights organisation working to address violence against women and sex discrimination through the law. One of our programme areas is addressing sexual exploitation. We are working to use international legal and policy frameworks to address sexual exploitation within our different contexts and countries.

For this talk, I was asked to speak on the impact of the ‘sex work is work’ ideology on women in the global South. So I was thinking, where do I start? How do I position this? I thought, let me go back to my own country where I was born and see what is happening in that context that can bring us to an understanding of why the ‘sex work is work’ ideology is so dominant in the global South, including within the African context.

I went back to 1983, which is almost 40 years ago now. In 1983 the police in Zimbabwe embarked on an operation called ‘Operation Clean Up’. Essentially, this involved the police taking to the streets and arresting anyone who was found loitering, anyone they considered a vagrant or a prostitute.

They swept through the nightclubs of Harare and other cities and even arrested women who were found on the streets walking home at night. In the end, thousands of women across the country were arrested for prostitution.

Operation Clean Up was based on the notion that good women should not be on the streets at night; that these women were making the streets “dirty”; that good women should be at home looking after their children, looking after their families – especially good Black women. So women on the streets were considered to have bad morals, and the law and law enforcement needed to deal with that.

So why is it that the police could just go out and do this, and government institutions could take this approach? An approach that continues to this day. Operation Clean Up happened in the early years of post-colonial Zimbabwe, precisely three years after the declaration of independence from Britain.

In the Zimbabwean context, and reflected in other countries across Africa with similar social setups and colonial histories, the social structure, by and large, positions Black women at the lowest rung of the social ladder.

So back then, in the 1980s, African women were all the way at the bottom of the ladder because of a combination of factors, which still remain in place today to a large extent. Patriarchy and white dominance were important factors within Zimbabwe and other countries that were under colonial rule. The white male was at the top, then the white woman, other races in between, then the Black man, and then the Black woman, right at the bottom of the social ladder. The colonial laws endorsed this hierarchy.

It was not until 1982, when the government passed the Legal Age of Majority Act, that Black women were accorded independent legal status upon reaching 18 years. They could enter into contracts, open a bank account, or buy or inherit property. Before that, they were under the control of their husbands or other male relatives. Essentially, even though, as Black women, we could go to school and work, we were not our own people and always belonged to and were subordinate to one male or the other.

Our purpose was to put up with the demands of our male relatives, and by extension, of the male species in general. A good woman was supposed to behave in a certain way and be submissive to male authority.

So that is the context of the moralistic approach to prostitution, which was supported by governmental institutions and is still very much dominant in many African countries today. And this moralistic approach was supported by colonial penal codes (still in place today), which criminalise public indecency, living off the proceeds of prostitution, and that essentially criminalise women that are bought and sold in the sex trade. The arrest of women in prostitution on loitering charges continues today across many African countries.

There was a report just a couple of weeks ago, on 8 October 2022, where eight women were arrested in Nigeria and assaulted by the police. The police used public decency laws.

So in the context of post-colonialism, police brutality and these public indecency laws, we began to see a rise of women’s movements protesting this police brutality. On reflection, I believe this is one of the factors that has helped to build the full decriminalisation agenda because it’s almost saying the only way to move from full criminalisation, which targets women, is to move to full decriminalisation – and this approach does not see a third way, which is the Nordic Model, (also known as the Equality Model).

And of course, another factor within the African context was the HIV and AIDS pandemic. We saw in the 80s and 90s countries like Zimbabwe and others in Southern Africa – South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, and as far east as Kenya, where we had the HIV and AIDS pandemic really ravaging our communities.

Then you had the epidemiologists and UN agencies, and so on, coming and pointing out that “sex workers” are a vulnerable group, and we need to look at ways in which they can access healthcare. There was a huge focus on harm reduction and access to healthcare and perhaps less on addressing the root causes of prostitution. So this is where we ended up.

It’s a context of two narratives: on the one hand, a moralistic argument that calls for full criminalisation of prostitution, which also has a lot of support from deeply conservative sectors of our societies; and on the other hand, you have the ‘sex work is work’ argument, which is seen as the solution to the criminalisation agenda, one that will supposedly free women from the shackles of morality and the lack of control over their bodies.

In reality, when you look at the full criminalisation agenda, it’s really criminalising and stigmatising those who are bought and sold in the sex trade. If you look at countries that fully implement this approach, like South Africa, what we actually see is that it is women that are being brutalised.

Partly as a response to that, we have the ‘sex work is work’ ideology, which is saying this is my body, this is my choice, it’s about liberating us as women so we can, and women can choose ‘sex work’. We can even migrate for ‘sex work’; therefore, we need laws and policies to reflect that choice in full decriminalisation of the sex trade.

But when you look at the experiences of African women, including in the diaspora communities and amongst migrant women, their experiences tell us a very different story and that this move from criminalisation to full decriminalisation does not address the fundamental causes and drivers of prostitution, which is a form of sexual exploitation.

It doesn’t help us to get into discussions around vulnerabilities within our communities arising from poverty and very limited choices to make a living and how traffickers and sex buyers are taking advantage of that.

It doesn’t get to the story of generational prostitution and sexual exploitation resulting from poverty and caste-based systems, discrimination and marginalisation over years, that sees generations of women and their daughters and their granddaughters being exploited in the sex trade.

It doesn’t tell us about the experiences of young women and girls who are coerced and sold to tourists and travellers in Africa’s tourist destinations. If you look at the levels of sexual exploitation and prostitution in the tourism industries in countries like Kenya and the Gambia, it’s atrocious and on a scale that is totally unacceptable.

It doesn’t tell us about how women and girls are trafficked out of their countries to meet the demand that is being generated by men in the West and other regions. It doesn’t tell us about university students being pushed into transactional sex with ‘sugar daddies’ because they cannot pay their university fees or lecturers who are sexually exploiting their students for sex to give them good grades.

There was a documentary produced by the BBC looking at the ‘sex for grades’ issue in countries like Nigeria and Ghana, and two of the lecturers were suspended without pay. That’s all they got – a suspension without pay!

We have heard from other speakers that these are not just African problems but global problems because the system of patriarchy and male dominance is the same whether you’re in Europe or whether you’re in Africa and current laws are not framed on gender equality – which is what the Nordic Model is really about.

We need to address the root causes of inequality and discrimination. We need to look at the demand. And we need to be supporting women in the sex trade and supporting their exit.

Our laws currently are not fit for purpose so the impact of the ‘sex work is real work’ ideology pushes the struggles of women in the global South away from the national debate and away from state accountability, especially the need for our governments to address the root causes that breed vulnerability and exploitation. It also perpetuates the culture of male impunity.

In my culture there’s a saying that men are perpetual minors, that they are perpetual children, and as women we should treat them as perpetual children and they don’t really know what they are doing. They are just like children, so as women we should be mothering our husbands and mothering the men in our communities.

This means that men can get away with so many things. They can get away with buying sex; they can get away with domestic violence; they can get away with any other form of sexual or gender-based violence against women. We see this in our communities at every point and it fails to acknowledge the long-term and intergenerational trauma that is experienced by women as a result of sexual exploitation.

While there’s a lot of push within the African context for full decriminalisation of the sex trade, I think what we are also beginning to see a growing movement for an Equality Model approach (aka the Nordic Model) from organisations in South Africa like Embrace Dignity, who are working hard to ensure that the government in South Africa adopts it. We also see it in countries like Malawi where some of the local organisations are partnering with organisations such as Equality Now and Coalition Against Prostitution to work together to ensure that the Nordic/Equality Model approach is adopted within their countries.

We should be looking more at global movement building, as this is an issue that is as pertinent here in the UK as it is in South Africa or Kenya and other countries.

As activists or as people who support the Nordic Model, how do we come together and build a global movement that will help us push for open discussions on these issues? How do we strengthen global solidarity so that our fight here in the UK can be supported by women in other countries?

I would conclude by saying a lot of work needs to be done, but collectively as women across the globe, we can bring the change that we want to see. Thank you.

Watch the recording

Here is the recording of the morning session of the ‘Students for sale: Tools for resistance’ conference. Tsitsi Matekaire’s brilliant contribution starts at 1:04:50.

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