Supply and demand of sex work

Date: January 1, 1970
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“It’s something even the bees can do, so why pay anyone for it?À asked one disapproving woman as she read an article about commercial sex workers demanding their basic rights. Yet in Africa, and around the world, sex for pay is one of the world’s most thriving informal trades.

Leading up to FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa, there is much debate on the topic of sex work and its decriminalisation. At the 2006 German World Cup, an estimated 3 million fans bought sex with over 40,000 illegal sex workers who entered the European country in search of work. Make no doubt about it, with fans from every continent congregating over South Africa and the region for one month of non-stop football action, commercial sex work – whether legalised or not – will record increased business.
Commonly referred to as the “oldest profession,” ironically, none of the usual labour codes and standards of professionalism apply to sex work. In fact, most people refuse the term, preferring to call the trade something far more demeaning and stigmatising – prostitution, or worse.
Yet, as the global economic crisis deepens, rising numbers of women turn to sex work for income. Poverty increasingly has a feminine face. In countries like Zimbabwe, there are countless stories of former teachers and government workers turning to sex work. For many, lack of options stem largely from deeply entrenched gender inequalities that prevent accessing resources needed to generate income, such as land, credit, and trade opportunities.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development signed by regional Heads of State in August 2008, offers some hope for economic justice for women. The Protocol commits states to take action to ensure equal access, benefits and opportunities for women and men in trade and entrepreneurship, as well as access to productive resources and waged employment.  Yet, the Protocol will only make a difference if ratified and enacted in each of the signing countries
Despite the widespread numbers of women, from all walks of life, who at some point in their lives engage in sex work, the mention of commercial sex work is an opportunity for many people to take a moralistic high ground. It breaks the integrity of society and sexual relationships, the norms of culture and religion, and commodifies the female body, they say.
Due to this dim view of selling sex for money, the trade remains a criminal act in many countries. However, this does not prevent commercial sex work to continue to be a thriving business sector.
In 2003, for instance, Australia recorded the world’s first publicly trading brothel on its local stock exchange in Melbourne. Why? Because sex work adheres to the same important rule that governs all successful business ventures; the law of demand and supply. If there were no demand for the services of commercial sex workers, their trade would die.
South African lobby group, the Sex Worker Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) wants the country’s government to decriminalise and regulate sex work ahead of the World Cup. As current laws stand, sex workers are unable to demand their labour rights, leaving them at the mercy of brothel owners or pimps who can exploit the women by withholding wages or medical assistance, or by forcing them to work long and unrealistic hours in order to maximise on profits.
Criminalisation of sex work usually targets the supply side of commercial sex, and never the demand side. Police charge the sex worker with loitering or some other offence, and never her client. One commercial sex worker mentioned on South African television recently that the police forces are particularly brutal when it comes to dealing with sex workers, using unprovoked violence and rape as means of punishment against them.
In Zimbabwe, one of the operations police mounted to “clean” the streets was ominously called the “Chipo, Chiroorwa” operation. Translated from Shona, this phrase means, “Chipo, Get Married.” Chipo being a Shona feminine name used here to represent all sex workers who police must sweep off the streets and return to their respective homes to find suitors and marry.
At the first-ever African Sex Worker Conference held in South Africa in February, many sex workers likened their abuse to the way animals might be mistreated. “In Uganda, sex workers are treated like dogs,” said one. The double standard is obvious – while demand for sex workers’ services exists, the workers are victimised and denigrated for supplying them.
Decriminalising sex work would mean the usual labour laws and regulations could be applied, and sex workers could claim their rights to good working conditions, equitable pay and medical aid. They would not be informal traders any longer, but taxpayers sowing back revenue towards the growth and maintenance of essential public services such as hospitals, clinics, and schools.
Decriminalisation would also criminalise offences committed against sex workers – by clients, pimps, or police.  Such protection would make sex workers more visible within society, and therefore far easier to reach with information on HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services – all of which they currently lack.
Denying the reality of commercial sex work is like trying to hide an elephant in a room – no one is fooled. Let us not forget that sex workers are human beings who deserve the same dignity and respect bestowed upon every person by virtue of their being human. Rather than continue to criminalise the practice, let’s rather make it safe, and provide access to the resources that would enable women to earn income in other ways, if they so choose.
Fungai Machirori is a Assistant Programme Officer (Media) with the Southern African HIV and AIDS Dissemination Service in Zimbabwe. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service which offers fresh news on every day news.

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