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These Johannesburg Christians Are Reaching Out To Sex Workers

Christians in contentious spaces have difficult questions to answer. Churches may be seen to be in opposition of growing calls for sex work to be legalised. These volunteers say they are just doing what they believe: showing God's love.

Alexandra Willis
May 08, 2017
It's the second Friday of the month and Christian outreach programme Urban Campout's volunteers are walking the streets of Johannesburg. They're in the business of reaching out to sex workers.

They offer the women coffee and listen to their stories, chatting sometimes until the early hours of the morning. Once a month, the volunteers host 'Street Church': a meeting behind a building in a loading zone where the women are invited to eat together with the volunteers and get spoilt a little.

"We put out blankets, serve good food, and sometimes do nails and makeup — one of our guy volunteers is really good at painting nails and we have a short teaching and prayer. We don't force it, but generally they choose to have prayer," says founder Ryan Sobey.

One of the prime reasons for why women stay in the industry is that they've got no hope for finding an alternate life — that's where we come in.

The women know the volunteers by name and greet both myself and the volunteers with warm hugs. They are chatty until they spot customers — at which point they stop mid-conversation and attend to them.

The volunteers' primary motivation is the Christian Gospel, and the idea in Jesus's teachings of love as verb — a call to action through radical love for humanity.

"These ladies know God's presence like no one else because they are so reliant on Him to keep them safe," said Simone Gregor, a core leadership team member of Urban Campout.

If sex workers want to leave, then Urban Campout's volunteers are able to refer them on to other organisations, like Hope For Women, a Johannesburg faith-based NGO that assists in rescuing and healing victims of human trafficking, as well as providing skills development and counselling for women wanting to leave the sex trade.

"One of the prime reasons for why women stay in the industry is that they've got no hope for finding an alternate life — that's where we come in. We've got the resources to help them look at other ways to make money, said Hope For Women's founder, Tabitha Rodger-Lage.

Hope for Women's "restoration" and "reintegration" programmes consists of counselling, therapeutic crafts, Zumba dance, music and Bible studies, in addition to skills training in the areas of secretarial work, computing, sewing, catering, floristry and hotel management.

Close Up Of Woman's Hand Sewing Quilt

If sex workers want to exit, then they should be assisted to exit, but if they want to remain, then they should be assisted to be safe, to make choices that align with their health and with their safety.

The work of these organisations is controversial for those looking in. Unlike more innocuous forms of charity, this is an area that puts these churches in direct contrast to the growing liberal consensus that sex work is work.

Sally Shackleton, director of Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat), Africa's leading NGO pioneering the call for the legalisation of sex work in defence of human rights for sex workers, said "organisations like theirs don't traditionally work with organisations like ours".

She went on to say that Sweat's chief criticism of "well-intentioned" faith-based organisations like Urban Campout and Hope For Women is that "services that promote the idea of 'restoration' or 'rescue' for adult sex workers imply that sex workers need restoring, and are somehow 'broken' — this is not the kind of language we believe will end stigma and empower sex workers to take up their rights and report violence against them".

We're just a piece in the puzzle. A person's life is much more than one organisation

Shackleton says Sweat was made aware of Urban Campout and Hope For Women while in the processes of compiling research on NGO's that help sex workers exit the sex industry should they wish to.

"One of the problems that we encountered in our research on exit programs is that a lot of these programs require sex workers to totally give up sex work, but often it's not possible for sex workers to give up completely. They need to make money, they have to pay rent, pay school fees, buy food," she said.

Shackleton said that irrespective of differences on positions on the illegal status of sex work, all NGO's concerned with sex workers should be about "meeting sex workers where they're at."

"If sex workers want to exit, then they should be assisted to exit, but if they want to remain, then they should be assisted to be safe, to make choices that align with their health and with their safety...We support any services that attempt to assist sex workers when this assistance is based on what the sex worker wants, and which respects her agency and choice."

Urban Campout's founder Ryan Sobey says this is precisely what his organisation does.

"What we are primarily there to do is to show them that they are loved, valued and purposed, and we wholeheartedly believe that that is a relationship with Jesus. We don't want to pull them off the streets if they have not approached us and told us that they want to leave. They need to make that decision on their own."

There are approximately 153,000 sex workers in South Africa, 33,660 of which are in Johannesburg, according to a 2013 rapid population size estimation study commissioned by the South African National Aids Council (SANAC).

Factors and reasons as to what leads an individual into sex work are as varied and complex as the endless cross-national debates about whether it should remain criminalised, and whether it is morally justifiable. In South Africa, the call for sex work to be decriminalised is backed by Sweat and other major human rights organisations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and health organisations like UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation. The call to decriminalise sex work is pinned on the notion that doing so reduces violence against sex workers through the protection of labour law, and reduces the risk of HIV infection.

Urban Campout, Hope For Women and other similar organisations disagree, and believe legalising sex work bears the consequence of opening the doors to the criminal activity of human trafficking.

"The major issue with legalising prostitution is that it gives more freedom to organised crime.. If you want to see human trafficking flourish in a country, legalise prostitution", said Sobey.

Urban Campout and Hope for Women are partners with A21 — which combats human trafficking — and South Africa's National Freedom Network, a group of organisations that do the same.

Sobey and Gregor said that though they disagree with the call to legalise sex work, they have great appreciation for the work that Sweat does.

"If there are rights violated then I would be the first one to direct them to Sweat, and if Sweat can represent their interests at a particular juncture, then I would connect them with whatever they need to be in a better situation. We encourage collaboration. Some of the ladies that we know and are friends with are peer educators for Sweat, so we're not opposed to them even though they have a mandate that is not in accordance with ours," said Gregor.

Faith-based outreach programmes are also accused of perpetuating a "white saviour industrial complex" — a perception that white folk believe they are benevolent benefactors of helpless "others". Websites like Humanitarians of Tinder on Tumblr and White Savior Barbie on Instagram satirise the way white volunteers make volunteering about themselves.

Urban Campout is well-aware of this criticism. Gregor says she has been met by many people who have said to her: "Who are you to say that they need saving?". Gregor said that the volunteer work that they do is not like other forms of humanitarian outreaches because more often than not, they do not see any material results; they can only hope their presence in the lives of sex workers makes a difference, even if they never see it materialise.

"We're just a piece in the puzzle. A person's life is much more than one organisation" said Sobey.

For women like Charlene Johnson*, these organisations have made all the difference in her life. I met her at a safe house in suburban Johannesburg run by Hope For Women, where she shared her story about how she found God through the turmoil she had been through having worked as a sex worker and as a strip dancer for many years.

The 33-year-old worked in the sex trade for about 13 years until August 2016. For much of those 13 years, she made no profit — her bosses did.

Johnson was forced into prostitution when she was 20, after responding to a false advert in a newspaper for a job as a masseuse. She had been sold from one brothel to another several times at the hands of traffickers, pimps, strip club and brothel owners before she escaped and checked herself into a drug rehabilitation centre, where she found God.

The rehab centre referred her to a contact it had at Urban Campout. Johnson developed a relationship with one of Urban Campout's volunteers, who referred her on to Hope for Women.

For Johnson, the arguments over white saviours and ideology are nothing compared to the life she now leads, as part of Hope For Women's restoration programme.

"I'm a fighter; a warrior for God.I've experienced Him. He's this awesome father that loves you and holds you when nobody else wants to. He doesn't reject you, He doesn't hurt you. God has helped me let go of everything that has happened to me. I'm not on anti-depressants; I'm not on any sleeping tablets; I'm not on any more drugs. I'm at peace now."

*Not her real name.

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