Nomonde Mihlali (“Mickey”) Meji is a program associate for Survivor Initiatives at Embrace Dignity in Cape Town, South Africa. Embrace Dignity is dedicated to ending all forms of sexual abuse of women and girls through legal advocacy, public education and exit services for trafficked and prostituted women. Mickey sat with me in New York during the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March 2017 to discuss her activism, from endorsing the full decriminalization of the sex trade to now advocating for a law that calls for its abolition.
You have an extensive presence on the Internet as a “sex work” advocate but you now have joined the abolitionist organization Embrace Dignity. What was your journey?
During my time on the street, one of my main concerns was police harassment. I needed to make money for my children and the only group working on police violence was the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force (S.W.E.A.T.) They introduced me to the term “sex work,” which I had never before heard. The concept was attractive at first because I felt they understood our dire situation. “Sex worker” sounded more dignified than the dirty-sounding “prostitute,” so it fed into my activism against relentless police brutality. The prostitution itself didn’t change though, therefore I never believed it could ever be work. I still couldn’t tell my daughter what I was doing; the shame and stigma were still there.
You entered prostitution at 19 years old. How do you respond to the people who claim that you weren’t trafficked or pimped and therefore it was a choice?
What do you mean by choice? During apartheid, my mother worked as a domestic servant in white South Africans’ houses. We had food and the basics at home, but we were poor. At 16, I gave birth to my son and Ieft school. A few years later, my mother became indebted to loan sharks and we quickly were in danger of losing our home. One day, walking home, a white man drove up to me and asked if I was a “working lady.” I was desperate to get my mother out of danger, so I drove with him to his guesthouse. He paid me 550 rands ($40) and I was amazed at the easy money. Shortly after that, I put condoms in my bag and went on Voortrekker Road in Cape Town. That was in 2001. I met S.W.E.A.T. in 2007 and exited prostitution in 2010 when they hired me as an advocate. They don’t offer those positions easily since they normalize prostitution as work, but I got lucky.
How did S.W.E.A.T. recruit you?
The leadership, which at the time was mostly white and headed by a white male, recruited me aggressively. When an acquaintance was stabbed to death by two women, including a pimp, S.W.E.A.T. provided transport to the prayer services. I didn’t want to drive with them, but needed a ride. They spotted me as articulate, so for two years kept asking me to join them. They hired me as a peer educator to distribute information about human rights, as well as condoms and lubricants for safer sex. They then moved me to the African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA) where I was country coordinator for South Africa, and then Sisonke, another “sex worker” group. They flew me around the world, from Mozambique, for the launch of ASWA, to New Zealand. Then S.W.E.A.T. wanted someone who could present their policies at the highest levels, so they appointed me Networking and Parliamentarian Liaison Officer. Everything looked legitimate.
What do you mean by legitimate?
Here I was with a business card and featured prominently on the Internet advocating for decriminalization of prostitution, but my family is not on the Internet. I left them in the dark about my job. Also, I am not a person who takes things at face value, so I started thinking about what it was I was advocating. In New Zealand, where prostitution is fully decriminalized, I interviewed a woman in a brothel. She was neutral about the law, but said it didn’t work for the women, which was a significant statement for me. She explained that prior to the law, the women worked mostly on the streets, unprotected, but often independent of pimps. After decriminalization, they moved into the brothels, which only benefitted pimps and brothel owners. She said the law only addressed police brutality, but they were still vulnerable to HIV/AIDS or client violence and brothel managers negotiated with the sex buyers, not the women.
How did that resonate with you within the South African context?
In 2012, COSATOU, a collective of trade unions in South Africa, organized a conference on gender. S.W.E.A.T. wanted to present a resolution calling for full decriminalization. To do this, the Open Society Foundations gave S.W.E.A.T. and the Women’s Legal Centre significant funds to document human rights abuses in brothels. It was an interesting proposition given the Kylie case, in which a woman had successfully sued the massage parlour that dismissed her after she refused to service a sex buyer without a condom. The idea was to train the women about their rights under employee/employer contracts despite the illegality of prostitution in South Africa. We wanted to document the abuses perpetrated against the women and at the same time train brothel owners about the women’s rights.
Were you able to document these abuses?
The problem was that the S.W.E.A.T. leadership was so keen on pushing for full decriminalization that they only wanted information about the women’s right to work in the sex trade and develop harm reduction policies. I support harm reduction policies, but we can’t stop there. I realized that S.W.E.A.T. was fulfilling the funder’s agenda and was willing to sacrifice the lives of these women. Everyone knows that human rights violations are perpetrated against women in brothels by everyone involved. Even if you no longer fear the police, what about your vulnerability with a client, who could kill or maim you? Or the brothel manager who can force you to have sex without a condom for the right price? Once I saw that funders required a “sex work” framework that would only legitimize exploiters, I got angry and left S.W.E.A.T.
What happened next?
I started looking for an organization that empowers women and found Embrace Dignity, but given that I was so publicly linked to full decriminalization efforts, they were reluctant to bring me on board. I needed time to reflect and created the Survivor Empowerment and Support Program (SESP). I started studying the laws European countries like Sweden, Norway and France enacted that protect prostituted women, while providing them with services. They call these laws the “Nordic Model,” which also focus on prevention and criminal liability of male demand for prostitution.
Do you think South Africa will pass such a law?
We call it the “Equality Model.” We are advocating for the South African government to enact this law, which will protect prostituted women from arrests and police brutality. On the other hand, it will penalize sex buyers for the harm they cause. Without the clients, there would be no sex trade and consequently no sex trafficking. The government must also invest in services and exit strategies for the women. Intergenerational prostitution is a reality in South Africa. I don’t want my daughters or future granddaughters to be in a position where having a vagina is the only qualification they need for a job or to pay for their education. The challenges are significant since the “sex worker” movement has considerable funding and Embrace Dignity does not, but the women are hungry for the Equality Model. We launched a Change.org campaign to put pressure on the government to pass the law and invest in ending violence against women. The South African constitution codifies our responsibility to attain equality for all.
Do you see a link between prostitution and gender-based violence?
The vast majority of my SESP sisters tell me they were first bought in prostitution as young teens, 14 or 15, which is paid statutory rape and sex trafficking. Violence against women and girls in South Africa is an epidemic. We are raped by our fathers, uncles, stepfathers, neighbors, teachers. We are thrown into polygamous and arranged marriages. Men’s abuse of women is so normalized. Our energies must focus on pressuring the government to pass laws and policies that end these abuses, not embolden them. None of the women I work with recognizes prostitution as work. They see how many of us are dying young. They need care and love, not the legal status of “sex work.”
Do you fear the feminist abolitionist and survivor movement may not trust you?
My choices weren’t between the abolitionist movement and S.W.E.A.T. My transformation comes from my own experiences and speaking to the women at SESP. See? I have a finger that doesn’t bend. A client attempted to rape me at knifepoint. As I was trying to escape, I pulled the blade from him and severed a tendon. My ruined finger is a daily reminder that I survived guns to my head, attempted kidnapping, violence, dehumanization. My former bosses at S.W.E.A.T. now accuse me of working for the right wing and say that taking away decision-making from women is dangerous. What is dangerous is white and privileged men and academics promoting the sex trade as a way of life for poor and Black women. When you leave home for work, you should be able to have some certainty that your children will see you again.
What is your vision for women in South Africa?
When my daughters grow up, I want to ask them, “What do you enjoy most about your job?” If you’re in prostitution that question is impossible to answer. South Africa cannot become a country where prostitution is what is left for us when everything else is taken away. Black women and girls deserve justice and equality, not the sex trade.
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