Respecting sex work

Date: January 1, 1970
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Just a week before the beginning of the 16 Days of Activism against Violence, Mozambique’s deputy Minister of Women’s Affairs and Social Welfare, Joao Kandiyane, launched a fight that few men are bold enough to raise. He called for the urgent establishment of legislation that would lead to the respect of the fundamental rights of sex workers.

The minister was speaking at an HIV/AIDS and sex work seminar in Maputo where he said the legislation would help in advancing issues like the right to health, to dignity, protection against violence and other forms of abuse, and respect for the women’s choice of profession, regardless of their motives for becoming sex workers. This view recognises that many different circumstances lead women to becoming sex workers.
Recently, I was having drinks with friends in one of Maputo’s suburbs, when a woman approached me and asked if I could have a sexual relationship with her. At first I thought she was mad or whatever, but when I enquired further she said that she needed money to feed her family.
Poverty at times drives people into desperation and to do things they may not normally do.  Instead of accepting, I decided to do a story. She told me how she has traversed in the rough world of sex work where she had been beaten, taken advantage of by clients who would not pay – some of her clients even included police officers.
Recently the media in Mozambique reported that a network of police officers were “arresting” sex workers who then took them to prison where instead they would hand them over to influential criminals in exchange for cash.
In these exchanges, the corrupt police officers would benefit. If there were laws to protect these sex workers, they could better stand their ground and refuse to be taken advantage of.
If government laws were in place to protect this industry, which is regarded in some circles as one of the world’s “oldest professions,” one would find well organised sex workers, who would even have their own unions like any other workers.
Anabela Chauke* a sex worker who lives in Maputo’s Polana Canico suburb says legalisation is not only timely, but agrees that it would help to protect her and other sex workers from abusive clients.
“I know of friends who have been abused several times by clients and it is shocking that they never receive any help from law enforcement,” said the mother of two young children. “If someone thinks of putting of these protective laws it would be a saviour to come of us who have turned to sex work not because of choice, but by circumstances.”
As Joao Kandiyane said, sex work is a “reality, and everybody in Mozambican society knows it is a reality. “What was necessary was to take measures that protected the life and health of prostitutes.”
He stressed that sex workers should not be discriminated against, and if they fall ill, they should be treated decently, and not as if they were criminals. This bold statement does not only apply only for Mozambique, but for the whole African continent where sex work is illegal and sex workers are usually treated as criminals.
"What we want is that sex workers should be seen as human beings, rather than the current situation, where they are exploited and have nobody to defend them," Kandiyane said.
As we reflect on the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, our society must reflect on the need to legal this profession, not to encourage sex work, but to protect the basic human rights of those who engage in it.
Legalisation would not only help the women to survive by the money they make from their work, but it would also help in cutting down the high figures of HIV/AIDS rates. According to the World Health Organisation forced sex increases, the risk of HIV due to physical trauma. Legalising sex work would help to protect these women from violence, protecting both their rights, and their health. 
Fred Katerere is a Mozambican freelance journalist and contributor a Mozambican based correspondent of the South African Press Association (SAPA). This article is part of a series produced by the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence.

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