MyChamp: Religious leader opening dialogue on sex workers’ rights in South Africa

A confident, religious man in a stylish purple suit, standing gracefully in front of a window, exuding elegance and sophistication.
Last updated on: 20 February 2024

Champions for sex workers’ rights are key in protecting human rights. To celebrate their work, we had a conversation with Professor Mbulelo Dyasi –the SANERELA+ Executive director in South Africa. He shares how he works to transform the attitudes of faith-based leaders and bring about dialogue in faith communities.

We were excited to be part of the Hands Off programme to learn about issues of sex workers and how to champion their rights because there are many [people who] encourage society to reject sex workers. My agenda now is to ensure faith leaders are trained and equipped to facilitate workshops and design manuals about sex worker rights.

Religious people sometimes don’t really understand the area of human rights. We always associate human rights with politics and say, ‘It’s a government issue’. So, when issues around the LGBTI community and sex workers arise, the majority of faith leaders just think these groups are anti-Christ and that government has somehow introduced these issues. We now understand people in the LGBTI community and sex workers.

The training also helped us to understand what sex work is about and what issues sex workers face. We understand that everybody has the right to live and everybody has the right to work and we see that if you preach that sex work is evil, people will listen and some might go and kill sex workers.

I am equipped to respond to challenges in this work and I want other faith leaders to also be equipped to defend sex workers.

Opening dialogue on sex workers’ rights

The Hands Off programme is very important because, yes, we can have meetings in boardrooms, we can go to parliament, we can meet government and pretend we understand each other but society is not the government and people are not killed in parliament buildings or government buildings. They are killed in communities, and we need dialogue to happen in communities. We engage communities and society. When we facilitate these dialogues, they are very practical and meaningful, and they help people understand sex work.

My role at SANARELA+ is to coordinate the religious response; create opportunities for faith leaders in terms of training; and run campaigns to support society. We have branches across South Africa and we are visible to government, on public platforms and we have become a voice for voiceless communities. We provide psychosocial support to sex workers: if we are needed to provide counselling, we can do that. We even attend to cases of abuse against sex workers. We also attend marches and the sight of us there, wearing our collars… what does that mean? It means that it is not possible for police to shoot people at the march because they won’t do that in front of religious leaders. Historically, police would not do this. We are creating a dialogue because people ask, ‘who are these pastors supporting human rights of sex workers?’. We say, ‘let’s sit down and educate you’. We go on TV shows and discuss these issues, even in African languages. These are local TV shows so it takes these issues out of boardrooms and the courts and into normal lives.

I remember our first dialogue with sex workers where we opened with prayer. The feedback we got from sex workers is that they were rejected by churches, and they haven’t been able to pray with religious leaders. This now allows them to continue their spiritual journeys. We encourage sex workers to come to church and we tell them to report discriminatory religious leaders to us so we can take action against them. We also support them if they need to report discrimination at the hands of police as we can report the police to authorities because we have connections to some high-level platforms.

Proudly standing before the nation and support vulnerable communities

We have to support sex workers’ rights because sex workers’ rights are human rights. Sex workers are human beings, and their work is their business. This group is not only marginalised, but it is being terrorised by society. People are being killed. This country is collecting bodies of sex workers and there is no way we can turn a blind eye to this issue. We have to soldier on and support the rights of sex workers and we need collective efforts because unfortunately if you work alone no one is going to listen to you.

I’m proud that I can stand before the nation and support vulnerable communities. I am equipped to respond to challenges in this work and I want other faith leaders to also be equipped to defend sex workers. I want to persuade communities to stand in solidarity with sex workers, so we can stop discrimination.

Also, I have two girls at home. I don’t know their future but if tomorrow I hear they are a sex worker I want them, and everybody, to be safe. We have to create a conducive and safe environment for everyone.

Hands Off programme

Hands Off, an Aidsfonds programme, works directly with sex worker-led groups, police, religious leaders, service providers and NGOs to reduce violence against sex workers in Southern Africa. This story story sheds light on one of the champions of change who work to break down societal barriers to sex workers’ rights. By sharing their stories, Hands Off aims to encourage everyone to stand up for the rights of sex workers. Because human rights are for all. We would like to thank North Star Alliance in Zimbabwe for its assistance in facilitating this interview.

The programme is funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Mozambique.


Read more!