South Africa’s #SayHerName Campaign Honors Murdered Sex Workers. 13/12/2016

Published by NEWSDEEPLY

By collecting the names of sex workers who have been killed, and
painting a picture of their lives, advocates hope to humanize them in
the media. The campaign is pushing for changes to fight the high rates
of violence against women in South Africa. 

 

In South Africa, with its high rates of violence against women,
the criminalization of prostitution puts sex workers at even greater
risk of being the targets of abuse.

When Leonie Geduld describes her friend Amanda in a letter, she
mentions details we all might dwell on when someone we love dies. It’s
clear from her handwriting that she was putting the words down
thoughtfully, her determined strokes indicating her desire to do her
friend justice.

“Amanda was a bundle of energy. The phrase ‘dynamite comes in small
packages’ comes to mind when I think of her,” the letter says. “She
loved dressing up and making herself beautiful. She was always friendly,
always had a smile and a glisten in her eyes.”

Leonie’s letter for her friend, who was murdered while working as a
sex worker, paints a picture of a full, complex life. But news reports
about the deaths of sex workers usually do the opposite, anonymizing and
dehumanizing murder victims who happen to sell sex for a living. That
is, if their deaths are in the news at all. Amanda’s was not.

“If you imagine any other mother or sister or friend going out to
work and being horrifically killed, the media might describe her family,
her life, how she lived and what she loved,” says Nosipho Vidima,
lobbying and advocacy coordinator at the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) in South Africa. “But the media doesn’t do this for sex workers.”

In an attempt to remind the media – and the population at large –
that sex workers are people, too, SWEAT has launched its version of the #SayHerName campaign. Taking its name from the U.S. #SayHerName movement,
which pays tribute to black women whose murders receive little press
attention, SWEAT’s campaign collects the names of sex workers who have
been killed, along with short eulogies written by the people who knew
them. The aim of the campaign is to work with the South African media to
correct oversimplified, salacious narratives around sex-worker deaths,
as well as to promote increased reporting of those women’s deaths.

“We want to address headlines that take away the dignity that these
women deserve by sensationalizing their deaths simply because of their
profession,” Vidima says. “It is about reaffirming their humanity, and
reminding people that these are just women, men and transgender persons
who are working to put food on the table for their families.”

South Africa has high levels of violence against women, including femicide, the gender-based killing of women. Because sex work is currently criminalized, advocates say sex workers are at a higher risk of rape and murder
than members of other groups. To avoid the police, sex workers often
work in dangerous locations and usually feel too afraid to report
threats of or actual violence against them. This means that dangerous
perpetrators can offend repeatedly – and can get away with murder.

“Stigma around the profession means the media often gets it wrong
when reporting crimes against sex workers,” focusing on the victim’s
circumstances rather than the crime itself, says Vidima.

A 2014 news story
proves Vidima’s point. The headline to the article reporting the murder
of 39-year-old Desiree Murugan simply reads: “Sex worker’s headless
body found in KZN [KwaZulu-Natal].” The bulk of the story focuses on the
grisly details of her death, while comments from her family come only
much later in the article, almost as an afterthought. More recent
reporting on Murugan’s case refers to it as the “Durban decapitation case.” And the theme – that sex workers are nothing more than their jobs – continues with other recent headlines: “Sex Worker Dies After Being Shot,” “Murdered Prostitute’s Perps Arrested,” “Horny Pretoria Man Bonks Hooker to Death.”

“In some cases, their families and friends either didn’t know they could report their deaths or were too scared to.”

When they were building the #SayHerName campaign earlier this year,
Vidima and others at SWEAT sent out text messages to their networks
asking for the names of sex workers who had been killed recently. It
became clear that one obstacle to tackling the high rate of violence
against sex workers was under-reporting of the crimes. “In some cases,
their families and friends either didn’t know they could report their
deaths or were too scared to,” says Vidima. “Or they didn’t trust that
the police would do anything.”

Analysis of the female homicide rate in South Africa from 2009, the most recent statistics available, shows that in more than 20 percent of female homicides
no perpetrator was ever identified, making it difficult to assess the
nature of the murder. Even today, crime statistics in South Africa are
not separated out – meaning national reporting on “sexual offences”
includes everything from rape to sexual assault to grooming to
bestiality. In her 2015 report on South Africa,
the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and Its
Consequences, Dubravka Simonovic, indicated that there is significant
under-reporting of sexual offences in South Africa, and that police
targets for reduced incidence of crimes could create a disincentive for
them to open cases.

Launched just a few weeks before the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers
on December 17, #SayHerName hopes eventually to create a list of all
sex workers who have died in South Africa and “play a pivotal role in
preventing violence by ensuring that sex workers are informed about
safety strategies, improving relationships with the criminal justice
system and improving safety mechanisms for sex workers,” says Vidima.

For the friends and families of people like Amanda, this may be the
only time the deaths of their loved ones are publicly acknowledged. And
for many, adding the name of a friend, a mother or a daughter to the
call for change is the closest they’ll ever come to justice. “The list
keeps on growing longer each day,” says Vidima. “Each week we hear of
new deaths.”