Homeless, transgender women fight for recognition in South Africa


SistaazHood, a group of about 40 transgender women, most of them homeless and sex workers, has become a growing voice on issues such as transgender homeless shelters, the legalisation of sex work and better access to healthcare. They are also fighting stigma on many fronts.

South Africa was the first country in the world to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1996 and is still the only African nation to allow same-sex marriage. Yet, transgender activists say their community has largely been forgotten in the fight for equality.

For 45-year-old Netta Marcus, who founded the Siztaaz with five other women in 2010, “stigma follows us wherever we go”.

Local rights groups credit the Sistaaz – who were labelled male at birth but identify as female – for challenging the police’s relationship with the trans community and motivating a major court ruling on transgender prisoner rights.

“The Sistaaz contributed their experiences to the drafting of the police service’s Standard Operating Procedures, outlining concerns about harassment of transgender people,” said Liberty Matthyse, head of transgender rights group Gender DynamiX.

A core issue for the Sistaaz is safe and affordable housing, which they say goes hand-in-hand with the struggle for their rights as transgender people and as sex workers.

Homeless shelters usually assign them to male dormitories, where “men always want sexual favours”, said one group member, who asked to remain anonymous.

Many end up living in makeshift shelters where they are vulnerable to being robbed, attacked or having their homes dismantled by law enforcement, the Sistaaz said.

The lack of housing limits the women’s options, making it difficult for those working as sex workers to make a living any other way, explained 32-year-old Lemeez Oliver, another member of the Sistaaz.

“Without proof of residence, we cannot open bank accounts. We cannot get jobs,” she said. “It all comes back to housing.”

LGBT+ rights group The Other Foundation estimated in a 2016 report that about 430,000 men and nearly 2.8 million women in the country present themselves in public “in a gender non-conforming way”.

The country’s constitution protects against any discrimination based on sex, gender and sexual orientation.

But the Geneva-based International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) says South African transgender people often face obstacles in exercising their equal rights. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)