Migrant women in sex work: does urban space impact self-(re)presentation in Hillbrow, Johannesburg

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Oliveira, Elsa Alexandra
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Rationale: Urbanization is rapidly taking place in Africa: fifty percent of the continent‘s population is expected to be living in urban areas by 2030 (Kok and Collinson in Vearey 2010b). Both internal1 and cross-border migrants2 are moving into South Africa’s urban centers at a faster rate than her neighboring countries; approximately 60 percent of the population is estimated to be urban (ibid). The worldwide increase in urbanization requires that research recognize the trajectories of people moving into these urban spaces, as well as the experiences that people encounter as they navigate urban centers (Kihato, 2010, Landau 2006a, 2006b, Vearey 2010a, 2010b, Venables, 2010). Many migrants in inner-city Johannesburg engage in unconventional survival strategies, including sex work (e.g. Richter 2010). Although sex work is considered an informal livelihood strategy, it is currently illegal in South Africa (UNAIDS, 2009). Research on sex work in South Africa is limited; however, there is significant evidence that sex workers in inner-city Johannesburg experience unsafe, unhealthy- often times violent- working and living conditions (e.g. Nyangairi, 2010, Richeter, 2010). This research is primarily interested in exploring the ways in which “marginalized” urban migrant groups choose to represent themselves versus the incomplete (re) presentation that is often relegated to them. A focus on representation will provide an opportunity for policy makers, programmers and academics to gain insight and better comprehend the experiences of migrant urban populations. In this case, the researcher is looking specifically at migrant women who sell sex as an entry point into the larger issues of (re) presentation among individuals and communities who are often described as “vulnerable” and/or “marginal”. Aim: The aim of this research project is to explore how migrant women who sell sex in Hillbrow, Johannesburg (re) present themselves, and how (or not) urban space affects these self- (re) presentations. Methods: The epistemological framework for the methodologies used in this study was Participatory Action Research (PAR), and the primary data collection methodology used consisted of an eleven-day participatory photo project where the research participants were given digital cameras and asked to photograph the “story” that they would like to share. Upon completion of the participatory photo workshop, five research participants were randomly selected to participate in 2-3 sessions of in-depth, semi-structured narrative interviews where the researcher explored the choice of photos taken, as well as the reasons why the photos were selected to (re) present themselves. Conclusion: This study has shown that use of Participatory Action Research as an epistemological framework is both conducive and appropriate when researching ‘hard to reach’ groups of people residing in complex urban areas. Furthermore, this research signals the need for greater inclusion of participants in studies aimed at understanding individual/group experience, especially when working with marginalized communities. This study also reveals a host of future research opportunities for those interested in exploring: (1) identity in urban space/urban health, (2) livelihood experiences/strategies of people living in densely populated urban spaces, (3) issues of belonging and access to health care, (4) impacts of structural violence on the lives of migrant women sex workers, (6) ways that perceptions and representations are impacted in group settings, and (5) the use of ‘innovative methodologies’ as a viable tool in social science research.
MA, Forced Migration Studies, Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, 2011.
migrant women sex workers , sex work , inner-city johannesburg , Hillbrow , Participatory Action Research , narrative interviews , life stories , advocacy , qualitative methods , representation , urban