“I’m broken inside,” says Springs sex worker after botched illegal abortion

SWEAT wants government to make it easier for sex workers to access adequate healthcare free from stigma

By Kimberly Mutandiro

27 May 2022

Sex workers say they are forced to seek out illegal abortions because of the stigma and poor treatment they receive at clinics. Photos: DeLovie Kwagala

*Mpumi, a 19-year-old sex worker, fell pregnant last year. She says her family in Soweto disowned her because she is a sex worker and could not identify her baby’s father.

Like many sex workers, she opted for an illegal abortion. Many sex workers say they are forced to seek out illegal abortions because of the stigma and poor treatment they receive from staff at clinics in the area. Not many places offer legal abortions in Springs.

Because sex work is still a criminal offence, many sex workers struggle to earn enough to access private healthcare.

Mpumi tried to abort her pregnancy by swallowing tablets she got from an illegal dealer. “The tablets made me bleed but the baby was unharmed. I’m broken inside,” she says.

She gave birth and, traumatised, left the baby at the hospital. Her mother was contacted to fetch the baby and her family now looks after her daughter, named Siphesihle, “precious gift”.

“Once I’ve saved enough money, I will go home to get my baby,” she says.

*Ntombi was raped by a client during the hard lockdown in 2020. She could not identify the man, who was wearing a mask, and so there was no recourse to justice. She fell pregnant. She too went for an illegal abortion which did not work.

Ntombi says when she went to a local clinic in Kwathema to ask about getting an abortion, a nurse recognised her as one of the sex workers from Springs. She says staff at the clinic laughed at her and did not help her. She left without getting the information she wanted.

Posters advertising abortions which claim to be safe can be seen plastered on walls around Springs. Ntombi says she was directed to one of these places by a friend when she was about three months pregnant. She paid about R300 for tablets. The dealer informed her of the risks, but she decided to take them anyway. After swallowing the tablets, Ntombi says she felt severe abdominal pain, but the abortion was unsuccessful.

“I’m lucky to be alive, my baby too,” she says.

A social worker told her to give her baby up for adoption, but she refused.

“No one understands what we go through. We need care and support. When we decide to keep our babies, people think we do not deserve to raise them because of what we do to earn a living.”

“It was a long nine-month journey and it was not easy and still isn’t.”

Mpumi and Ntombi are among dozens of sex workers who work in an open area known as Marikana in Springs, Ekurhuleni. Marikana has been the scene of many crimes against sex workers. Many of the women said clients took advantage of them because the area is isolated and they were often victimised, abused and robbed.

Some of the women GroundUp spoke to were pregnant.

Posters advertising illegal abortions are scattered across Springs

In response to detailed questions, Springs police spokesperson, Sergeant Themba Tshabalala, confirmed that the field known as Marikana is a hotspot for crime.

The market for illegal abortion pills and abortion doctors is thriving but cases are difficult to investigate, he said. “When a woman dies as a result of taking illegal abortion pills, it is not treated as a criminal offence. We can only investigate once a case is opened,” he said.

Police acknowledge that the open area known as Marikana where many sex workers in Springs work is a crime hotspot.

Zandile Mbabaza, advocacy assistant at the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT) said sex workers were stigmatised at clinics and hospitals and as a result often turned to illegal abortions.

“The attitude they are dealing with is so bad, especially at clinics in townships,” Mbabaza said.

Eugene Van Rooyen from SWEAT said the organisation had talked to officials at the Department of Health about sex workers’ complaints of poor treatment. “There has been a proposal to create ‘sex worker clinics’ over the past few years to respond to this problem, but we believe this does not address the real problem,” Van Rooyen said.

National Department of Health spokesperson Foster Mohale said they are aware of the stigmatisation of sex workers, but could not provide information about complaints at specific clinics. He said the department is working with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to implement sensitisation training for all staff.

Mohale denied that access to Termination of Pregnancy facilities is refused or is challenging for sex workers.

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Gender Justice Reporting Initiative.