Cindy's* first sexual experience with a complete stranger was worth only R20. That first time she used a condom. She was just 16.

On numerous occasions thereafter she didn't have a choice in the matter because she was forced at gunpoint to have sex, without using any protection.

These were some of the stark memories this young woman shared with a hall full of people at the Sex Worker Symposium in Hillbrow, Joburg recently.

The symposium was convened to discuss challenges facing the industry, best-practice approaches, service-delivery interventions and barriers to service provision.

Speaking candidly, Cindy recalled how she had been abused at the hands of management at the brothel in which she worked, police officers and community members.

"I lived in the Eastern Cape and came to Joburg with a cousin and a friend after we heard my aunt talking about Joburg every time she came home to visit," said Cindy.

"At the time I didn't know what she did for a living but I did know that every time she came home she looked good, wore nice clothes and had money."

After the three girls arrived in Joburg, Cindy tracked down her aunt in Hillbrow. She gave the girls something skimpy to wear before taking them down to the local bar.

"When a man asked me: 'How much?' I started screaming at him. My aunt saw what was going on, came and took me into a passage where she said here we have to make money," said Cindy.

"She then took me up to her room and showed me how to use a condom. The man had sex with me and then gave my aunt R20." With tears in her eyes, Cindy said this was how she joined "the industry".

Months later she went to have an HIV test done and visited the Esselen Street clinic from where she was referred to the New Life Skills Centre in 2005.

"I've never looked back since and I am now a peer educator. It has changed my life. I was able to leave the brothel and now have my own little flat," she said.

Cindy's story is only one of thousands of young women who get involved in the commercial sex industry. Cindy said access to healthcare, skills development, and exit programmes and strategies - for those wishing to leave prostitution - were urgently needed.

Hillbrow and its surrounding suburbs have been identified as hotspots where the commercial sex industry is thriving.

Delegates at the symposium also broached the topic of child prostitution, which they said was becoming a huge concern.

They said children of sex workers were sometimes groomed for sex, petty crimes and drug dealing from the age of six.

Concerns about the young age of female workers, the growth of street sex work, the trafficking of women, the vulnerability of sex workers to abuse and HIV/Aids were also high on the agenda.

According to information supplied by the Hillbrow Health Precinct, female sex workers in the inner city come from diverse backgrounds.

Their ages ranges from 13 to 45, with an average age of 26. The majority of women have only primary school education, making it hard for them to find alternative jobs. About 60 percent of sex workers have been in the sex industry for almost five years.

The majority of sex work taking place in Hillbrow is conducted through hotels and brothels, where rental is a minimum of about R40 to R80 per day, while in the more upmarket, better maintained brothels, it is R150 a room per day.

There is a also small male sex worker industry that is focused on street children who have sex with older men.

*Not her real name
kudos hoe!
For those who don't know, Hillbrow is a city in South Africa.