Two orphan girls

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (WOMENSENEWS)–The global AIDS crisis used to be a Dan Rather sound byte to me; little more than a glossy Newsweek with skeletal kids on the cover. So many people, so far away . . .

As a journalist, I had never covered human anguish and desolation on such a massive scale. My ignorance thumped me like a brick in the face when I recently accepted a human rights fellowship from the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center and the Center on Women and Public Policy to work with prostitutes in Cape Town, South Africa.

My apathy was quickly replaced with a rather colorful nightmare. I relay these stories to others with throbbing nausea in my gut. I can find no other words other than the cliche: The experience changed my life.

Maya’s Face Is Lacerated and Scarred.

Fifteen-year-old Maya gives men oral sex for 90 cents. She is a sex worker in Cape Town, where HIV and AIDS are rampant, and young girls and babies have become the safer, “cleaner” route to adult pleasure.

Maya’s face is lacerated and scarred. She routinely scratches at the open sores around her mouth. Under the watchful eye of her pimp, I gave her 100 condoms and a few Afrikaans pamphlets on sexually transmitted diseases. Then I moved onto the next block where more teen-age girls and adult women flashed their panties in hopes that a man with between 10 and 50 Rand would pull over.

I cannot successfully describe how it feels to teach baby girls–girls who are probably years away from getting their period–how to use a female condom and choose the proper lubricant.

But my organization, the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce, is dedicated to doing just that: providing non-judgmental education and support to girls and women who are traditionally ignored and relegated to the margins of society.

Many feminists splinter themselves over the issue of sex work, but the taskforce strives to step beyond the theoretical and political fires to help women who need less theory and more assistance.

The taskforce is a well-known organization throughout South Africa, though little known to the rest of the world. It performs research, legal advocacy, and most importantly, outreach. The organization distributes more than 60,000 male condoms a month and a growing number of female condoms.

In a country where sex trade is only illegal for the (mostly female) prostitutes and not for the (mostly male) clientele, sex workers are often targets of violence and abuse. Women who sell sex have no legal recourse and they are often raped by pimps, clients and police. They are beaten by boyfriends and forced into near-slavery by gangs. It is an ugly, ugly environment where women and girls–and a small number of men and boys who sell sex–have little place to turn.

But not all sex workers are victims. Many sex workers are striving for social legitimacy and acceptance in South Africa. Sex work can be lucrative . . . certainly more lucrative than selling chips and sweets at the bus station. And money often grants these women more independence in their relationships and communities.

The Ocean Laps Up Against the City

South Africa is a beautiful, lush country. The ocean laps up against the city of Cape Town, which resides in the shadow of Table Mountain. I enjoyed world-renowned surfing and animal safaris that I could find nowhere in America.

Yet the contrast between the beauty of the country and the horrifying saturation of violence never failed to shake me. At the center, I heard gory tales of 8-year-old girls pimped out by their step-fathers, gang-raped repeatedly. I knew about women who were driven to distant locations by a client, only to learn there were three more men in the trunk waiting to take turns. I met women who were brutalized too many times to keep count and women who sold sex to survive but would never consider themselves prostitutes. I now know women will get paid more for sex without a condom and can earn even more money if they dry out their vaginas with tobacco leaves or herbs. Many sex workers are, in fact, safe; they choose to use condoms. But the women and girls rarely use protection with the men they love; some face beatings if they ask their partners to use it.

Perhaps most abhorrent are the soaring number of baby rapes and child rapes in South Africa. In early March, a 23-year-old man was charged with raping an infant. A few days later, a 2-month-old baby girl was raped and sodomized–allegedly by two men, ages 74 and 26. The baby was so savagely ripped apart and destroyed on the inside that she underwent multiple surgeries to repair her internal organs.

My co-workers said baby rapes are following myths that having sex with a virgin cures AIDS, and that younger girls are “cleaner” and “HIV-free.”

Closest to Hell I Might Ever Encounter

As the season in South Africa spiraled from summer to winter, I packed my bags to return home. In my last hours in Cape Town, as I waited for a ride to the airport, I bought a couple of Cokes to drink with the little girls who played on my street.

“Where you going?” one asked.

“Home to the United States” I said.

“You do not like it here?” the other asked.

I think my throat imploded. The current and future suffering in this country is the closest to hell I might ever encounter. The violence perpetrated against women, girls and babies makes me feel murderous toward South African men and the government. I feel a chafing guilt at America’s international apathy toward the AIDS crisis. I have an overwhelming sense of helplessness at the magnitude of people who are and will be dying–over 5 million infected, women at twice the rate as men.

“No, I like South Africa a lot,” I said. “And I’ll miss it.”

The words came out of my mouth with a feigned smile, but I know I wasn’t telling a lie. Maybe simply a half-truth.

Jessica Webster is a graduate student concentrating on women and policy at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. She has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance journalist in Honolulu, Washington, D.C., and Indianapolis.

For more information:

The Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce:

AIDS and Africa:

The AIDS Foundation of South Africa: