Working the City: Migrant Women

Working the City: Experiences of Migrant Women in Johannesburg was a collaborative project involving the Market Photo Workshop, the Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of the Witwaterstrand and the Sisonke Sex Worker Movement.

The project sought to bring to light the experiences of migrant women involved in sex work within inner-city Johannesburg, through a visual medium. It entailed a 10-day workshopping process in which students from the Market Photo Workshop assisted participants in putting into images, their experiences of the inner city and their lives. This process entailed the imparting of skills and the use of photography for social awareness. Participants worked with students to edit their images, write captions and share their stories.

Women involved in sex work are often stigmatised and are currently criminalised under the Sexual Offences Act 23 of 1957. Working within the inner city of Johannesburg, the women who participated in this project travelled to Johannesburg from within South Africa and across national borders. Currently working and living within sometimes violent and unhealthy environments, this project presents the lives of 11 migrant women involved in sex work: who they are, why they do the work that they do, and what their fears, hopes and realities are.

These women share stories of their journeys to Johannesburg, their relationship with home, and the love of family and support of friends. Additionally, tales are told of very difficult lives and harrowing experiences. It is important to note that a high level of xenophobia is expressed in many of the stories, a fact that reflects some of the difficulties and harsh realities of these women’s lives but also an issue that is extremely problematic, particularly in a country with unacceptable levels of xenophobic violence. Other problems include gender violence and health challenges like HIV and Aids. Importantly, these stories express the voices of people who are often unheard.