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Selling Sex, Mothering and ‘Keeping Well’ in the City: Reflecting on the Everyday Experiences of Cross-Border Migrant Women Who Sell Sex in Johannesburg


In Johannesburg, a city with the largest proportion of South Africa’s migrant population, women who sell sex face multiple vulnerabilities including discrimination, criminalisation, and many levels of violence, directed particularly at non-nationals. Drawing from interviews with non-national or cross-border migrant women who sell sex on a regular basis, this paper explores experiences of selling sex, motherhood and ‘keeping well’ through the lens of the city. Noting that violence against sex workers is often identified at an inter-personal and behavioural level (attacks and abuse from clients, the police and the public), this paper seeks to make more visible the unjust and violent structures and practices of the inner-city, which impact upon and negatively shape the everyday experiences and well-being of migrant women as they sell sex. These include difficulties in accessing basic services such as healthcare and childcare, encountering widespread stigmatisation and the misrepresentation or silencing of certain voices within the sex worker movement. Therefore, questioning the ways in which the city is experienced, and in turn how practices of the city have failed migrant women who sell sex, the paper argues for a broader approach, an approach that recognises the complexities and ambiguities inherent in the lived experiences and multiple identities of migrant women themselves rather than through the frames applied to them whether it be that of sex worker, foreigner or mother.

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  1. In this paper, I use the following definition of sex work as developed during a UNAIDS workshop in 2000: ‘Sex work is any agreement between two or more persons in which the objective is exclusively limited to the sexual act and ends with that, and which involves preliminary negotiations for a price’ (UNAIDS 2000 in Richter et al. 2011, p. 10). I also use the term sex worker rather than prostitute to refer to those who identify as working in the sex industry in a non-stigmatising way conveying the professionalism of sex work.

  2. Xenophobic violence is woven through the everyday experiences of foreigners from other African countries in South Africa. There have been at least two major outbreaks of violence in 2008 and most recently in 2015 (Africa Check 2015).

  3. According to the MiWORC research, 32.65 % of international migrants are employed in the informal sector in South Africa compared to 16.57 % of non-migrants and 17.97 % of domestic migrants (Africa Check 2015).

  4. In South Africa, all aspects of sex work are criminalised—including the buying and selling of sex, pimping and running of brothels under the Sexual Offences Act 23 of 1957 (last amended in 2007) (see

  5. Sisonke is funded by the SWEAT.

  6. See Walker and Clacherty (2014) “Shaping new spaces: an alternative approach to healing in current shelter interventions for vulnerable women in Johannesburg” for a discussion on art work in a women’s shelter in relation to models of healing.

  7. The anti-trafficking rhetoric is also particularly vociferous following a moral panic that emerged in the wake of claims about increasing trafficking during the 2010 World Cup and South Africa being placed on the US watch list as a country with a trafficking problem, despite the fact that research in trafficking is scarce and that the data that does exist is often acquired through methodologically unsound ways (see Gould et al. 2010).

  8. Musina is the northernmost town in the Limpopo Province of South Africa and bordering Zimbabwe, it is the first arrival point for most migrants arriving from states north of South Africa (predominantly Zimbabwe and the South of the DRC). Those from the north of DRC and from Mozambique and Malawi tend to enter via Komatipoort in the Mpumalanga Province.

  9. The decriminalisation model typically involves repealing criminal offences and penalties and instead relying on existing regulations as they apply to the sex industry in the same way as they might apply to any other enterprise.

  10. R2000 equals approx. £94 or $145.

  11. Creative space is intended as a meeting space where sex workers can come together and share their experiences and concerns and receive support from the sex worker community including peer educators at Sisonke.


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Walker, R. Selling Sex, Mothering and ‘Keeping Well’ in the City: Reflecting on the Everyday Experiences of Cross-Border Migrant Women Who Sell Sex in Johannesburg. Urban Forum 28, 59–73 (2017).

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