Interview: "We need justice regardless of what policies say"

Interview: "We need justice regardless of what policies say"

"There is high need for sex workers to organise themselves in a bid to speak in one voice." Says Leeroy Gumpo, newly appointed coordinator of the recently established Southern African Sex Workers Alliance (SASWA). We spoke with Leeroy about why decriminalisation is crucial for the health and wellbeing of sex workers, what SASWA brings on top of existing initiatives and where his passion for the sex work community comes from.

First, could you introduce yourself? 

My name is Leeroy Gumpo and I'm 25 years old. I am an aspiring development practitioner who defines development as a multisectoral approach to humanity. I am a Human Rights Activist who applies a human rights-based approach in all whims of life. I am a Feminist hence making me a very vibrant sex worker advocate and activist.

I strongly feel that sex workers are a community that I have always been very passionate about. I've interacted with a variety of sex worker groups from my country, regionally and globally. I am a programming expert for sex workers. I drive a mantra that speak against the stigma and discrimination of human beings that can be based on profession, sexual orientation, sexual identity, gender expression and identity. Diversity is the best term that can define myself. I am currently the Southern Africa Sex Workers Alliance (SASWA) Regional Coordinator and I seat in the African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA) Board of Directors.

Where does your passion for the sex-work community come from?

I've been living with sex workers in the environment that I was brought up in. Back then sex work was really criminalised, there were no platforms to speak out for sex workers’ rights. Growing up, I saw parents really striving to provide for their families through sex work and ensuring that their children would have a brighter future. That's when I realised that these people are human and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. 
 

Leeroy Gumpo Leeroy Gumpo

What do you think is most needed to decriminalise sex work? 

There is high need for sex workers to organise themselves in a bid to speak in one voice. This way we can rally around support. Support from other civil society organisations, from community leaders and from friends and families of sex workers.

Furthermore, a common misperception is that sex work does not add value to someone's future. I really believe that there is need to educate people on what sex work entails, how one may become a sex worker, what motivates someone to engage in sex work. We must demonstrate that sex work happens on daily basis and that there are testimonies that sex workers are human.

I think by doing this we can achieve decriminalisation in a holistic manner that is recognised by all. Using it in a way that says: sex work is profession, just like any other profession. For instance, teachers use certain body parts to conduct teaching. Why do we need to discriminate against sex workers who also use parts of their bodies, then? So that they can make a living? Sex workers are mothers, sex workers are sisters and even some professionals who we don't even think about. 
 

How does SASWA contribute to advocacy for decriminalisation? 

We mobilise sex worker communities in their diversity, so that they can join local, national and even regional sex worker-led initiatives. Ensuring sound advocacy for sex workers in Southern Africa is one of our mandates. We capacitate sex worker-led organisations in advocacy efforts and provide technical expertise to our members.

At SASWA we have a dream. We want to make sure that sex work issues are discussed at SADC* level and strive to have a representation in SADC committees that speak about health and human rights. So, we can lobby for change in policies that criminalise sex work, policies that fuel discrimination and violence against sex workers.
Conversations around decriminalisation should not only happen in South Africa, in Zimbabwe, but should really happen around the region. So that everything is uniform and sex workers are speaking in one voice.
 

We can lobby for change in policies that criminalise sex work, policies that fuel discrimination and violence against sex workers.

Which groups does SASWA target in its advocacy?

Apart from parliamentarians and committees that are in governance structures who have the power to reform policy in the region, religious leaders are a critical group we particularly target. In their communities they serve as gatekeepers of societal norms, cultural beliefs and traditions. We need them as allies to channel issues like violence perpetrated against sex workers and to change behaviour and traditions in the communities, regardless of their own perceptions around sex work.

INERELA, Hands Off partner and member of SASWA, has developed a manual addressing engagement of different religious leaders to reduce violence against sex workers, that we are going to adopt at SASWA.
 

Leeroy Gumpo Leeroy Gumpo

What does SASWA bring on top of the other existing sex-worker networks in the region?

One of the unique contributions of SASWA is that of ensuring that the voice of a young sex worker is heard in the sex worker movement. We wish to mobilise and mentor young sex worker leaders to speak out on issues that affect young sex workers. In 2023 we will partner with United Nations Development Program since they are implementing the We Belong Africa initiative in the region, which is aimed at young people in all their diversity. We'll be working on SRHR, access to justice and decriminalising same sex relations when it comes to young sex workers.

We cannot achieve decriminalisation of sex work without collaborations. So, another contribution that we're making, is reinforcement of partnerships. The sex-worker movement has been operating in silos, and SASWA is stepping in to strengthen collaborations. We partner with thriving institutions, such as UNDP, the Southern African Litigation Centre and the International Organisation for Migration. Many of the sex workers in the region are immigrants. To address their problems, we need to partner with an institution that works with immigration-related issues. Also, it is great to see that our contribution is not limited to Southern Africa only, we work closely with the African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA) as well and the Network of Global Sex Worker Projects (NSWP).
 

If SASWA were to change one thing for the better for sex workers in Southern Africa, what would that be?

The immediate change that we want to see is a decent work agenda for sex workers. The environment that sex workers operate in is volatile. If decriminalisation is not possible at this stage, sex workers should at least be able to work in a safe environment and have a place where they can organise and speak their issues, document violations and challenge injustices that they face on daily basis. Whenever sex workers are raped, whenever sex workers are beaten, we need justice for that regardless of what policies say.
 


Whenever sex workers are raped, whenever sex workers are beaten, we need justice for that regardless of what policies say.

What are your responsibilities as coordinator at SASWA?

To give an example, in Zambia issues around female sex workers have really been silent. I convened different sex workers; we trained them on how to start a movement and why sex workers need to have them in the first place. I'm happy to share that we now have a registered female sex worker movement in Zambia. So that's really promising.

Overall, outside of the daily planning and coordination, my job is to provide advocacy support to any organisation in Southern Africa that has appealed to SASWA. This includes support in reviewing fundraising proposals, crafting advocacy messages, addressing issues of violence against sex workers. 
 

Why did you choose to apply for this position?

As a peer educator my interest in sex work had grown to a point where I attended the Sex Worker Empowerment Academy, organised by ASWA. I got employed by Pow Wow, a sex worker-led organisation in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Coordinating Pow Wow made me grow a lot, we had mentorships, and I got to know a lot of vibrant sex worker activists.

At Pow Wow we addressed violence against sex workers. As a leader and part of the community, I experienced a lot of violence in my working space. The working environment was very toxic. It was draining, I got depressed and reached a point whereby I was about to quit my career and just start afresh at a different path. When I read Aidsfonds' advertisement for the SASWA coordinator, I felt this was the challenge that I needed.

The fact that Pow Wow is one of the SASWA founders further triggered my interest. I had been part of the SASWA working group and SASWA had become a baby to me. So, when I saw that this baby needed a coordinator, I strongly felt that I was the best person to apply.

When I read Aidsfonds' advertisement for the SASWA coordinator, I felt this was the challenge that I needed.

Now, how do you feel?

To be honest, I feel great because I achieved the goal not to abandon the career path that I'm so passionate about and I have healed from the violence that I was subjected to.

Given my background and experience, I trust that SASWA is in good hands in my capacity as coordinator. We have already built some wonderful new relationships. I still work with the partners that I was working with at Pow Wow. My team is expanding, and I have grown myself. I'm doing fantastic.
 

Leeroy Gumpo (25) from Zimbabwe is the newly appointed coordinator for the Southern African Sex Workers Alliance (SASWA). SASWA was founded in 2022 by sex worker-led organisations: Pow Wow, Zimbabwe Sex Workers Alliance, Sisonke Botswana, Sisonke South Africa, SWEAT, Pathfinder and the Zambian Sex Workers Alliance and by and multiple individual activists. SASWA is funded under the AidsFonds Hands Off programme.


* The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is an inter-governmental organisation headquartered in Botswana. Its goal is to further regional socio-economic cooperation and integration as well as political and security cooperation among 16 countries in Southern Africa

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