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South Africa’s #SayHerName Campaign Honors Murdered Sex Workers

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.

Written by Jen Thorpe Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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. AP/Africa Media Online, Nikki Rixon

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.”

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.”

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