Cape Town – I am a mother, a sister, a friend, a caregiver - and a woman who just happens to be a sex worker.
This is the message sex workers delivered to South African Members of Parliament on Wednesday during a multi-party women's caucus meeting.
They appealed to the women in the committee to help make their jobs safer by speaking out against the criminalisation of sex work.
The sex workers described a vicious cycle of abuse – perpetuated by clients, police and the criminal justice system.
Nobuhle Nobuzana has been a sex worker for 18 years.
She has been arrested numerous times, harassed and accused of being a negligent mother. All because she spends her nights working the streets, hoping for enough money for lunch for her children, without the shame.
But every time she leaves her shack and her children unsupervised, she knows she might never see her children again, she told the committee. Their home might get caught in a shack fire, they might get taken away by social services, or she might die on the streets.
The job is risky, and they know it.
"As a woman, a mother, sex work is the ultimate last resort. It is only when there is nothing else that you give in and go to the streets," she said.
"You stand at Voortrekker Road, Cape Town, at 03:00, alone, cold, waiting, and at 06:00 you must be home to prepare your children for school. And there are days when you come back with nothing," she said.
She has tried to get out of the industry. The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) helped her get training in the hospitality industry. However, when she was due to start in-service training, her criminal record stood in the way.
"I have never, ever strangled a man for money. I have never stolen, I have never fought. I am not a killer and yet I have a criminal record. All because of a job," she said.
She was a regular woman who just happened to be in the business of exchanging sexual favours for money.
"I still go to church on Sundays. I attend community meetings in my area, and at night, I am a sex worker. I have four children who are dependent on me. My sister's children are also dependent on what I make on the streets. My brother depends on me," she said.
Sex workers are often looked down on, especially by their families, but it is merely a job, not their whole lives, the committee heard.
They suffer untold abuse at the hands of police, the sex workers told the committee.
"They want free sessions all the time. We have no freedom as sex workers. I don't know why we are treated like this. We are citizens, we are voters," she said.
'Our children still have to eat'
Noluvo Magwevana told the committee they went to work every night, and went home not sure if their children would still be there.
She was also part of a group called Mothers for the Future, she said. Most women in the profession are mothers.
She broke down in tears as she described how, on many occasions, she returned home to find her children had been taken away.
"We have no choice but to leave the children alone. You lock them in. And then you come back and they are gone. Sometimes you never see your children again."
Crying uncontrollably and at times losing her voice, she said it hurt when their children were taken away. And what made it worse was that in the mornings they still had to go into the streets to earn money.
"We often have to look after each other's children, and the children of sex workers who were killed on the job. This is our reality."
"This profession, it is not nice, but we have to do it. We are mothers, our children still have to eat but because we have no other jobs, we have to do it. This is a job," she said.
A lack of understanding of their work led to stigmatisation.
"Our children are facing stigma every day. When they are in school, when they are playing with other children, they are labelled," she said.
'We can speak for ourselves'
Nosipho Vidima bemoaned the number of institutions who purported to be speaking on their behalf.
"We can speak for ourselves. We know what we want, it is the decriminalisation of sex work. Let our voices be heard. We are not just a marginalised community without a voice. We do have a voice," the Sweat activist told the committee.
She echoed complaints about the police being a major problem for sex workers.
"There are vans that drive around the same areas, and pick up sex workers. Sometimes they put pepper spray on sex workers' private parts," she said.
An angry Vidima told the committee that sex workers were killed all the time, even as the country celebrated women's rights.
She called on MPs to be firm in calling for the decriminalisation of sex work. They needed an actionable plan instead of more meetings.
"We are mothers, sisters, friends, and we are sex workers. Help us to not get killed," she said.