World Cup Avoids Flood Of Sex Workers

In South Africa, many feared there would be a huge influx of sex workers to profit off the tourists gathered for the soccer fest. But for the most part the fears seem to have been unfounded.

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When the World Cup kicked off several weeks ago, it was widely reported that thousands of prostitutes would flock to the country's nine host cities. And many feared that international traffickers would try to cash-in on the huge influx of tourists by importing sex workers. Well, that hasnt happened nearly as much as anticipated.

Anders Kelto has our report from Cape Town.

(Soundbite of conversations and music)

ANDERS KELTO: In the heart of Cape Town's central business district is Long Street, a late night destination for those seeking a taste of South African nightlife. Music thumps from the dozens of bars and clubs that line the street, as a never-ending stream of taxis crawls along the road. And like many cities, visitors here are enticed to enter some of the area's seedier establishments and to pay for sex.

Prostitution is illegal in South Africa but there are plenty of gentlemen's clubs and lounges that allow clients to do more than just look. There are also more than 30 brothels in Cape Town and dozens of sex workers who visit area bars and clubs on a given night.

But according to some prostitutes, the boost they expected during the World Cup hasnt materialized. A woman who goes by the name Rose has worked on the streets of Cape Town for the past 17 years.

ROSE: World Cup, we didnt make money. I dont want to lie. Even if we go to the pubs, they will all just tell us: No, we are here for soccer not for sex.

KELTO: A woman named Ray has been a sex worker in Cape Town for the past 10 years.

RAY: No, I didnt make money, nothing. I only see my regular clients, my local regular clients. I never saw foreigner or nothing. I didnt make even money.

KELTO: Before the tournament began it was widely reported that 40,000 sex workers would arrive in South Africa's nine host cities, and that many would be the victims of trafficking. But according to Cape Towns city councilor, JP Smith, the number of cases has been much lower than predicated.

Mr. JP SMITH (City Councilman, Cape Town): We've not seen international trafficking, certainly not the ludicrous 40,000-figures and stuff that were bandied about. So it is exactly 10 at last count.

KELTO: Officials acknowledge that sex trafficking is a real and serious issue in South Africa, but they also worry that too much focus on these more sensational stories has distracted the public from more common problems that prostitutes here face.

(Soundbite of machinery)

KELTO: Salt River is an industrial working-class neighborhood just outside downtown Cape Town. Near a factory in a long line of repair shops, two men push a shopping cart filled with scrap metal and other salvaged parts.

The area is home to SWEAT, an NGO that provides education and counseling for local sex workers. Today, two nurses from a nearby health clinic conduct a workshop on HIV.

Unidentified Woman: Okay, especially if you live a stress-free life.

KELTO: South Africa has the highest incidence of HIV in the world, with roughly one in eight people infected. Sex workers are at especially high-risk, in part because clients - many of whom are HIV-positive - often offer to pay more money for unprotected sex.

Rose describes one such encounter.

ROSE: And then he will tell me: No, I give a thousand rand for the whole night but without condom. You're like - and then when, yeah, that thousand rand is a lot of money and you need money. And then you sell for the thousand rand and then you dig your own grave, you see? I can't fall for the money. What about my life and my children?

KELTO: But while sexually transmitted diseases are a major concern, it's clear that what the women here are most fearful of is not HIV, but the South African police.

Ray says the police have stolen from her many times.

RAY: Yeah, the police is take bribery from us. They took my cell phone. They took my chain. And I never got my property back again. I think the police is there to protect us but for me they just use us. They use us.

KELTO: Perhaps most disturbingly, a recent study showed that 12 percent of sex workers in Cape Town have been sexually assaulted by police officers, and nearly half have been threatened with physical violence.

To help sex workers get off the street and out of brothels, SWEAT has begun providing educational grants for them to return to school. But in a country where the unemployment rate hovers around 25 percent, the sad truth is that most of these men and women will continue working in the same illegal trade, and will continue living in desperation on the margins of society, even long after the World Cup has ended.

For NPR News, Anders Kelto in Cape Town, South Africa.

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