This paper provides a detailed account of the social organisation of commercial sex work in a squatter camp in a South African gold mining community. On the basis of in-depth interviews with 21 women, living in conditions of poverty and violence, the paper examines factors which might serve to help or hinder a newly implemented community-based peer education and condom distribution project aimed at vulnerable single women. Attention is given to the way in which the routine organisation of sex workers’ everyday working and living conditions, as well as the strategies they use to construct positive social identities despite working in the most stigmatised of professions, serve to undermine their confidence in their ability to insist on condom use in sexual encounters with reluctant clients. However, even amongst this disadvantaged group of women, the interviews suggest that the tendency to speak of women’s ‘powerlessness’ (as is the case in many studies of African women in the context of the HIV epidemic) is unduly simplistic and fails to take account of the range of coping strategies and social support networks that women have constructed to deal with their day to day life challenges. These strategies and networks could serve as potentially strong resources for community-based sexual health promotion programmes
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