I’ve spent the past 10 years working with hard-to-reach, and highly vulnerable populations, including sex workers and their clients. My journey began as a young women growing up in Apartheid South Africa, sheltered through my race and privilege from the violence and neglect that many of my fellow South Africans were experiencing in daily life. It has evolved to be one of mother to my own children and others, sister to my family and team, and perpetual student  of life.

Through The Looking Glass

While completing my Master’s Degree in Research Psychology I was drawn to the field that no one was speaking about: sex worker. My curiosity and boldness for risk found a positive outlet, and as a personal outreach project I started connecting with women as we tried to find solutions to the reproductive health problems of this neglected sector. I would meet with women in the middle of the night in the Johhannesburg City Deep, one of the most notoriously dangerous parts of the country. Entered the underbelly of this alternate world I expected to be confronted by prostitutes in fishnet stockings  and high healed shoes, begging for sex and drugs.

What I found instead was immense humanity, both in others and in myself.

I found women, mothers, sisters, daughters. I found humility in the  darkest reaches of the country. I  saw first-hand that education was what separated our lives. It was not about easy choices, those are a privilege. They were making brave and necessary choices based on the  need for survival and with very no support.

I became both confidant and student. Educated on rape and abuse by police, by lovers, by clients. I learnt about the double bind of families demanding money while simultaneously rejecting the women for how they had earned the money.  Instead of spaces being created to helping women in such situations, and within the realities of a country  with  high unemployment and abysmal educational  outcomes, there was no opportunity for them to work safely or evolve out of the cycle in  ways which  responded to their needs, the circumstantial factors that all too often kept them in a state of survival. 

I met a woman who had children fathered by her own father, while her mother had condoned his actions and persecuted her.

A woman who had been held down by the police while they pepper sprayed her vagina, and then beat her so she could not identify them.

A woman who reeked of the cancer that was eating away at her, all the while smiling on the streets, trying to earn a living in what had become an immeasurably painful vocation.

Women who described being stabbed and beaten and ‘treated worse than stray dogs’, and all with the simple, pure focus of survival and providing for their families.

With quiet dignity they described working every night so that their children would have food, a roof over their heads, and enabled to complete their schooling with the prospect of  better opportunities than their mothers had had.

I wanted to do more. I needed help.

Soweto Sex Worker Programme

The project began without support: I was warned not to meet the women, never at night, and never in the areas where they worked. I was told that as a white upper class woman, they would never speak to me, let alone tell me their deepest secrets, greatest joys and share their most intimate pain. Instead I found that when we approach people without judgement, without pity, but with a collaborative attitude to work together, we can achieve great things, and it has spurred me to try and leverage both this insight and my influence to effect change.

I had not intended to become immersed in humanitarian work but, in understanding the lived experiences of such a marginalised population that is precisely what happened. And so in 2013 I founded a project for sex workers due to their high risk of HIV. Our mandate was to educate, protect, and connect, primarily in the high density pulse of Soweto.

More often than not the ratio of sex workers to outreach workers was 120:1. By August 2019, we had capacitated over 1500 women from communities across South Africa, employing almost 100 staff nationwide, with on average, 24 permanent staff based in  Soweto.

As a team we have worked on the frontlines of HIV treatment, prevention and care; have been in the trenches of violence prevention and post violence care; have provided basic mental health care where none was available. We have consistently served almost 5 800 women, men and children involved directly or indirectly in the sex work industry in Soweto.

All of our work through this project has been community-centric, and together we have made incredible discoveries:

  • Discovering the prevalence of resistance to anti-retroviral treatment (ART) (HIV drug resistance) in sex workers
  • the first population level mental health prevalence study amongst sex workers in South Africa
  • the most comprehensive study of poly-victimisation in this population
  • the first study of male clients of sex workers in South Africa
  • contributed to international epidemiological models of South Africa’s response to the HIV epidemic which highlight serious gaps in our response
  • our data has provided invaluable insights to the enrolment of high risk men and women into of South Africa’s most promising HIV vaccine trials

Finding Potential

Such projects are tough to run – physically, fiscally, mentally. Besides the constant concern of trying to reach more and do more with less and less, I have been strangled in my office, had a knife pulled on me, had a hit taken on my life, and an attempted rape when in a hostel – and my staff have endured even more. I have had to remind myself that these incidences are daily realities for the people we are trying to help. Their optimism and endurance gave me the motivation to continue.

There are more moments than not when one realises the strength of the human spirit, and that everyone has potential – it is just a matter of holding a space for them to find it. Africa does not lack solutions, they lack the resources and support to realise them.

It is with this in mind, and having been so incredibly supported by my team, that I founded the African Potential Foundation in 2020. Through this we will ensure that spaces for African people of all race, gender, colour, and culture can be supported in finding and reaching their potential.

Find inspiration.

Fund innovation.

Let us harness solutions for Africa, by Africa.