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The Call to Decriminalize Sex Work Continues to Grow in South Africa

As South Africa’s government debates whether or not to decriminalize prostitution, advocacy groups say the current strict legislation denies women and children some of their basic rights and puts them at greater risk of violence.

Written by Jen Thorpe Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Sex workers march through Cape Town, South Africa, in March 2011. Advocacy groups are calling for the government to decriminalize prostitution, saying it would protect sex workers against exploitation and violence.AFP/Rodger Bosch

South Africa is home to an estimated 153,000 sex workers who are at high risk of violence, HIV infection and sexually transmitted diseases. The law in South Africa currently criminalizes both the buying and selling of sex.

But rights advocates say the legislation has had a host of damaging consequences, including the denial of healthcare treatment, legal protection and employment rights to sex workers as well as violence by clients and police. In the past few months, groups such as the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), the Commission for Gender Equality and the African National Congress Women’s League have amplified their calls to decriminalize sex work. In August, the country’s parliament held a meeting to consider decriminalization that, if it happens, would make South Africa one of only a handful of countries in the world to lift legal sanctions against prostitution.

Women & Girls Hub spoke with Nosipho Vidima, lobbying and advocacy coordinator at SWEAT, about what decriminalization might mean for South African sex workers.

Women & Girls Hub: What is the nature of sex work in South Africa?

Nosipho Vidima: When we are talking about sex work we are talking about a trade that actually happens everywhere, and it is not an industry that is as dark as everyone thinks. Sex work is work.

The numbers of South African sex workers are difficult to estimate, but sex work is taking place where the service is demanded – in brothels, in homes and on the street. Street-based sex workers face danger from their work locations, clients and police. Brothel-based sex workers also face dangers from clients, but also from exploitation by pimps in some cases. However, in some cases pimps provide security and support to sex workers.

Women & Girls Hub: Why does SWEAT want decriminalization rather than any other model of sex work?

Vidima: There are four main models of sex work around the world, but only decriminalization provides for sex workers to work in safer environments, without arbitrary zoning or regulation, and reduces the human rights violations against sex workers.

Firstly, we want sex work decriminalized because sex work is a victimless crime that often arises out of conditions of economic constraint. South Africa is a poverty-stricken country, women are more likely to be unemployed and the choices available for work are not necessarily going to meet everyone’s financial needs. With decriminalization you create safer working conditions and allow sex workers to access labor laws that protect them.

Secondly, the laws we have around sex work originated from the apartheid era. Their purpose was to segregate white and black people, and thus in instances where a white man was caught with a black woman she was assumed to be soliciting. So this law arose out of moral discomfort with mixed-race sexual relationships. Since then, we know that the views of the public have changed. It’s no longer a question of morality. It’s about recognizing that people deserve their human dignity, and women’s bodies no longer need to be policed.

Decriminalization would also reduce the likelihood of violence and violations such as arbitrary arrests and violence by police and clients by creating a context where sex workers could report these violations and seek justice for them. Sex workers would have a safer environment to work in and would be able to take ownership of their businesses.

Women & Girls Hub: How do you feel about the recent calls from parliament for the decriminalization of sex work?

Vidima: The process of reforming the law around sex work began in 2009 with the South African Law Reform Commission discussion paper. The final report from this project, which has the power to initiate a law reform process, has not yet been released despite having been handed to the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development in 2014. There is the possibility that the report, when it is finally released, will be outdated.

With this in mind, the call from Parliament to decriminalize sex work is definitely a step in the right direction. We would also like to see these issues being raised in the Cabinet so that the ministers of all the departments talk to one another about this issue, instead of working in silos. At the moment, the Department of Health supports the provision of healthcare and contraceptives and the South African National Aids Council has a plan specifically for sex workers, but other departments [justice, the police] continue to arrest sex workers arbitrarily. So there is a need for cohesion in government responses – talking to one department at a time leaves some people behind.

Women & Girls Hub: What do you make of suggestions that decriminalization would lead to an increase in child sex work and the trafficking of women and children, or that sex work is inherently a harmful profession for women?

Vidima: I disagree with these suggestions. In fact, criminalization makes it more difficult for sex workers to report such abuses when they see them. At SWEAT we have had sex workers come in and say, “We have seen underage children practicing sex work and we can’t report it at the police station,” because they’re afraid of being arrested themselves. Criminalization also makes it more difficult for children who have been forced into sex work to report it.

Sex workers in South Africa are particularly vulnerable to violence, and as of August this year we have already had 15 reports of sex worker deaths, 11 of whom were killed by their clients. If the state decriminalized sex work, these sex workers would have been better protected by police.

There are sex workers who want to leave or retire from the trade, and so our calls for decriminalization are accompanied by calls to increase economic and business skills development opportunities for women, so that when they leave sex work they are able to start new careers or run viable businesses.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

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