Legal Help for Sex Workers—from Sex Workers

I grew up with my granny and aunt and we stayed in a four room house with four of my cousins. When my granny passed away, my mother took me to her hostel where she had a room. It was not a nice place for children to grow up. When I was in grade ten my father said he wouldn’t pay for another year and I should just stay at home. My mother started getting sick and my father didn’t want to support us. My friends told me I could make money in town, so I started going to town to do sex work.

It is a great privilege to be able to help others as a paralegal. Other sex workers never even knew that there is a Bill of Rights in our Constitution but now they practice those rights because of the WLC.

—Ncumisa, Women’s Legal Centre paralegal

The Women’s Legal Centre (WLC) is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations based in Cape Town, South Africa that provides legal services for sex workers in collaboration with sex worker organizations. Sex work is criminalized in South Africa and sex workers face routine harassment, intimidation, and even abuse from police. Police use municipal laws against loitering, solicitation, and drunken behavior to threaten, arrest, or detain sex workers for days at a time. And many are released only after paying large fines. Police use these tactics, in large measure, because convictions for sex work are difficult to achieve. Few clients want to risk self-incrimination by testifying.

WLC began its outreach by offering weekly group workshops on human rights to sex workers. It soon expanded, employing four former and current sex workers as paralegals. The benefits of peer-based legal assistance are clear, says a paralegal named Ncumisa. “We know the industry. It is easy to communicate freely without fear of being stigmatized since we share similar experiences in their line of duty.” Anita, another paralegal, agrees. “It is very important because we understand the difficulties and obstacles that sex workers encounter on a daily basis,” she says. “We personally know how violent police can be towards sex workers, so we can offer advice.”

To do community outreach, WLC paralegals partner with a counseling and advocacy organization called Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce. They provide male, female, and transgender sex workers with legal information and advice, and assist with court hearings, bail applications, and filing complaints about police abuse. “For two weeks we do day and night outreach where we find them in the hot spots. Then weekday mornings for two weeks we do follow-ups. We give legal advice, and help them with protection orders and lodging complaints to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate. And we do a 24 hour helpline,” says Ncumisa.

“My favorite part is motivating and helping sex workers to contest their fines for something that we believe it is work—not crime,” Ncumisa explains. “I love the expression on their faces when we get them out of jail, seeing how happy and trusting they are.” Her colleague Anita agrees, adding “I know what it feels like to be wrongfully accused and charged. So it feels great to be of help in the community.”

There wasn’t enough money to feed everyone in my family so I found a job in a factory. While I had that job, an older friend told me about what she did to make money. She said sex work was like a normal job because you can do it during the day, and that your family wouldn’t know. I started doing sex work at age 18. I found that doing sex work was better because I felt good when I could put food on the table and make sure nobody goes hungry.

When I got my job as a paralegal I was over the moon because I am doing something good. I enjoy my work at WLC because it is something I have a passion for. Working as a paralegal has given me more insight into how the police really have no respect for us sex workers. I see how different the police act when there is a paralegal around. They are more respectful.

—Gaironessa, Women’s Legal Centre paralegal

Please visit Women’s Legal Centre online to find out more, including how you can support their work.

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A M A Z I N G !

Love, Nanna, street lawyer, Copenhagen, Denmark

Thanks Nanna!

Why doesn't your foundation provide funding for legal help to us sex workers here in the United States?

Thanks for your comment Maxine. We know that there is a significant need for funding for the sex worker movement in the US, as there is for sex worker movements across the world. However, because Open Society Foundations has finite funding, we unfortunately have to focus our geographic scope.

Power to you

Thanks Julie for your comment.

the stories are very true. but there is need to sensitize the community at large. its by choice that one could practice sex work but the circumstances

correction. it should read. it is not by choice

Thanks for your comment Omero. I agree that there is definitely a need to sensitize the community at large about the rights of sex workers, the abuses that many currently face, and the work that thousands of sex workers around the world, including in South Africa, are doing to fight these abuses.

Some sex workers are engaged in sex work by circumstances, some by choice. It is like any profession. Regardless of how someone comes to be involved in sex work, every sex worker deserves the same human and labour rights that is given to all others in society.

Right and Justice is for all and should be treated as medicine for all human being on the planet regardless of race and social lifestyle.

Thanks for your comment Albert, I completely agree with you. Rights and justice are medicines to the abuses that many people, including sex workers, face across the world!

I think the work that WLC is doing is admirable. Empowering sex workers to understand that there is more value to their world by giving them jobs and not just access out of jail is no easy feat. I think more organizations worldwide should take heed when conducting grassroot efforts with sex workers.

I feel it is important to educate the males on the fate of the sex workers to get better reslts.

I have visited the WLC and the sex-worker organisations that they work with and i still remain amazed by the quality of work they are doing. They not only give legal help but also educate the sex-workers on their rights in line with the Constitution. Even though sexwork may be illegal in South Africa and many other countries in Eastern and Southern Africa, sex workers are human beings and they are entitled to human rights. OSF we hope you will continue supporting such effort worldwide.

am of the support to this issue on sex workers.if there is need to empower these people we need to empower them with knowledge. otherwise it will be like get water with a bucket that is leaking
is there any research that has been conducted so far ?otherwise we need to have evidence base in our aurguments.

i would propose to look at the psychosocial effect of sex workers in some parts of the word.

Kaana Foundation for Outreach Programs advocate for the rights of sex workers in Western Uganda; and we are a member to Global Network of Sex Work Project. For several times we have contacted Open Society Foundations for our programs on fundamental rights of sex workers which are abused daily and the health situation; the HIV/AIDS prevalence,but we don't get any replay! what is the best way of your contact ?

i believe and trust that you are helping these people find their proper footing again. does your organistion work also in zimbabwe.

We need this in Kenya. Sex workers here too get harassed a lot.

Well done activists.
The world out here really appreciates the great work you do.My humble request is for you to provide EIM for all including those who harass the sex workers for them to know that, much as the torture them, they are also humankind patterns in this world.

The police should highly be engaged in these seminars, workshops and conferences for them not to feel confronted but corrected on how to handle the publics in all sorts of life.

Thank you once again.

Hey from Cape Town, I once nearly made the choice to go this way 20 years ago and went to SWEAT for advice. It was because of their advice and their information brochure that I never went for it. I realised I did not have what it takes to do what these women do! So to read what Open Society and SWEAT and WLC have been doing for the women, men and transgender people doing sex work in Cape Town was really awesome. Thank you for helping people who can really really do with the help! And thank you for using sex workers to be the para-legals. That was really inspired! You Go Girls! And just remember here is one member of the public who is looking kindly!

as sex is a biological need of workers are fulfilling at the cost of their health. it is a great they must have legal support as well age heath society is doing a great job.

i am still amazed at how the WLC is able to do such a great is admirable and thank you Open Society for supporting the same.

I hope the same could happen for our sex workers here in Kenya

This project is to be much admired & a great example of collaboration between two organisations with their own expertise. I suspect it works because sex workers were already organised & empowering themselves. How long has the project been going & are you analysing its impact - ie have levels of violence decreased? has knowledge in wider society about violence against sex workers not being ok increased? Are you considering working with police so that sex workers could do some training fit new police recruits about the issue of violence against sex workers? Is this a trial project or ongoing?& can we look forward to an evidence based report that documents the project & outcomes so it may be replicated elsewhere?

Thanks Sue for your comment. WLC has been working with sex workers for several years now, though the paralegal project is about 3 years old. WLC has been documenting human rights abuses against sex workers through the project and at the end of last year released a report that showed unacceptably high levels of violence against sex workers perpetrated by the police. The release of the report contributed to WLC and its partners, SWEAT and Sisonke, receiving permission to undertake police trainings in the Western Cape. The project is ongoing. I would suggest checking out the WLC's website to find the advocacy report.

OSF supports legal empowerment projects for sex workers in a number of other countries, and we are currently looking at ways of capturing the outcomes of these projects in order to support replication in other contexts.

Education and advocacy is beautiful, especially when it lifts those who are regularly distressed and mistreated because of their choices or circumstances. A very large issue centered around sex workers is those who are underage and forced into the trade. Maybe to expand the project, the legal aid could be extended to help those who do not choose or cannot make the choice.

This is wonderful work. Congratulations.


Me l think there are really doing a good job the WLC thanks to them for helping out and reaching out.

my word!! Swaziland really has long way to go our sex workers are ignored and treated underground the only cases i have heard of involving sex workers is when one has been murdered, in terms of getting a sex worker to being a paralegal or even getting legal help that is just so new South Africa is really fortunate to have a woman like that..

Good stuff.

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