Sex workers in Zimbabwe were granted permission to partake in this year’s Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF). In a bid to promote trade and investment, the ZITF provides a platform for various entities to showcase their business and to trade, educate and network. It has been through the tireless efforts of the Sexual Rights Centre (SRC) that commercial sex workers have finally been afforded the chance to participate in this annual event, which draws many to its location in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city. SRC is a human rights organisation that works with key populations that include sex workers and the LGBTQI+ community and advocate for their rights.

Those who are in the business of selling sex have long been portrayed in a bad light. This has been exacerbated by sensationalist media, which reduces them to a group of immoral people who are simply contributing to the spread of HIV/AIDS. That is why the SRC Legal Support Officer said that this opportunity to participate in the ZITF is important: It is an opportunity for society to learn that sex work is work and that sex workers must be respected like all professionals who work hard to fend for themselves.

Mixed reaction

Unsurprisingly, the inclusion of sex workers at the ZITF drew mixed reaction from Zimbabweans. Some – including people who call themselves human rights activists or defenders – thought that giving sex work a platform at the ZITF was inappropriate, basically because they did not consider sex work to be a “noble profession” worthy of such validation, nor one that could contribute – or be allowed to contribute – to the growth of the nation’s economy. Others were wary of exposing their children to the option of such work. There were those who saw the move as one that would encourage prostitution and those who mockingly wondered what the sex workers would be showcasing. And there were those who thought it made no sense that people who are subjected to “modern-day slavery” should be given such a prestigious platform.

Unsurprisingly, the inclusion of sex workers at the ZITF drew mixed reaction from Zimbabweans.

 

Freedom of expression

It is an undeniable fact that Zimbabwe’s Constitution affords us all freedom of expression. Section 60 of the Constitution proclaims that all Zimbabweans enjoy the “freedom to practice and propagate and give expression to their thought, opinion, religion or belief, whether in public or in private and whether alone or together with others”. Still, the reactions to the sex workers’ presence listed above – especially when they come from people who claim to promote human rights – raises the question of whether it is only certain particular rights of certain particular people that are advocated for by some of our human rights defenders and activists or by society at large. One also cannot help but ask what the gauge is that we use to measure which behaviours, ways of living or professions are acceptable/appropriate or unacceptable/inappropriate?

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One word: morals.

These rules or standards of what is right and wrong are a product of time-specific influences. This means that they can change over time. Morals are a social construct that can be derived from religion, society, government or even the self. Religion tends to be the main source of the morals many people adhere to (or claim to adhere to). While it is our Constitutional right to form and adhere to these rules, it is also worth noting that these rules, which are very capable of evolving as we evolve, are subjective, belonging either to an individual or to a specific group of individuals. What is “right” for someone or one group of people is not necessarily “right” for the next individual or group. Just because one group considers it morally acceptable to spank children does not mean that this is a universally shared belief. Unfortunately, we humans tend to expect everyone around us to observe the same rules as us, and we judge them if they don’t. Even in instances where we seek (democratic) reform in our nations, we tend to expect only that change that is aligned to our moral convictions – no matter how divisive, oppressive or retrogressive they may be. The reaction to the participation of sex workers at ZITF proves just that.

File picture: Activists from Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce campaign outside the Western Cape High Court in June 2015. Photo: Ashleigh Furlong

Sex work is work

Whether or not we believe that selling sex is “immoral”, “a sin”, “a threat to our culture”, and even if we tend to hold such beliefs while we do not always practice what we preach, fact is that sex work is work. Yes, some practitioners have been forced into it by underperforming economies that fail to create jobs or enhance the creation of decent jobs, leaving some of us to use our bodies and others to sell a service in a “morally acceptable” way, even while we all earn peanuts. How many of us have not been forced to take up a certain kind of work because of our struggling economies? Yes, some sex workers do not like the job and only endure it because it is their only source of income. How many of us even like our jobs? However, the circumstances that result in someone turning to sex work do not take away from its validity as a form of work from which to earn a living. The people selling the service deserve the same respect and protection from exploitation as that afforded to other workers.

People should also not lose sight of the fact that sex workers sell their services to those who seek it from them.

Some nations have proven that the sex work industry can contribute to the GDP of an economy. In Amsterdam, where the profession has been legal since the 18th century, those selling sex are regarded as independent entrepreneurs. The local authorities regulate the industry to ensure that sex workers are protected from exploitation and have access to health facilities. The legalisation and regulation of the industry means that vulnerable individuals such as minors or illegal immigrants are protected from sex trafficking and from being forced into the profession. By regulating the profession, officials also ensure that those in this business pay their taxes, thus contributing to the growth of their country’s economy.

Read: How do we understand sexuality in South Africa?

Undeniably, it will take some time for society to warm up to sex work. The reaction of several Zimbabweans to the participation of sex workers at the ZITF affirm this. Their reaction also provides further proof of the need for sex workers to be given such airplay. People need to know what sex work is about and that supporting sex work is not tantamount to supporting human trafficking or the exploitation of susceptible groups, such as children. These and many other problems arise when the industry is pushed underground and is not regulated, making it impossible to ensure, among other things, that the exchange occurs between consenting adults.

People should also not lose sight of the fact that sex workers sell their services to those who seek it from them. Therefore, they cannot and should not be held accountable for the actions of any adult who approaches them.

The platform that sex workers were given at the ZITF enables them to educate people, to debunk any misconceptions and to work towards ending the stigma attached to their profession. For this, kudos to ZITF indeed.