We need to legalise sex work

Date: December 7, 2010
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Commercial sex work is illegal in South Africa despite more than a decade of calls from civil society organisations to regulate the age-old trade by either decriminalising or legalising it. The South African government toyed with the idea of regulation during the 2010 FIFA World Cup but ultimately decided against it.

Although government and civil society may have been on the same wavelength, however briefly, their motives were at polar opposites. While the government was seeking to make an extra buck through sex tourism, as well as to ensure the “safety” of the hundreds of thousands of tourists expected to come for the international event, civil society organisations were more interested (rightly so) in seeking to protect and empower the sex workers who are currently “enjoying” sub-human status in the country.

Gender-based violence is a huge issue in South Africa, evidenced in the recent Gender Links GBV Indicators study which found that three quarters of South African men admit to perpetrating abuse in their lifetimes.

One can’t help but be pleased to see a lot more mobilisation, activism and awareness-raising over the years, yet the absence of the plight of sex workers when it comes to this issue is rather glaring.

Nomsa Parker*, a sex worker in Cape Town, says she and her colleagues have on numerous occasions been victims of abuse, extortion and harassment of a sexual nature at the hands of the police.

“The police raped my friend inside a car in Tiger Bay. The police, when they arrest sex workers, they put us in damp cells with wet blankets. If you don’t want to stay in that cell they say ‘if you want to go out give us sex for free,'” she said.

Sex workers also suffer abuse from clients. “One day I was working in Bellville on Voortrekker road and my first client beat me up and raped me without condom,” said Parker.

These crimes almost always go unreported and the women rarely receive medical assistance when they are raped because they suffer discrimination from health practitioners.

Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) Deputy Director Sally-Jean Shackleton says anyone who works in sex work is vulnerable to violence.

“Women and men who work on the street are routinely abused by the police, experience name calling and abuse from shop owners and the public, and violence from pimps and clients,” she said. “Rape and sexual assault is common. For women who work indoors they are vulnerable because the have no legal or labour protections.”

Shackleton said one brave sex worker recently took her brothel to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) for infringing on her rights, and it took a long time for the court to recognise that even though her work was illegal, she should be protected.

Statistics from SWEAT research indicate that 64% of South African sex workers experienced violence at the hands of clients (assault, dropped in remote areas, rape) – one sex worker said “clients become violent because they don’t think that we are human beings.” Another 50% reported being abused by police officers.

SWEAT has, for 15 years, offered services to sex workers, advocated for decriminalisation and mobilised sex workers. It provides safer sex education, drug and abuse counselling, and assists sex workers to further their education.

“We support sex workers if they want to leave sex work,” said Shackleton. “As well as if they want to stay in sex work. We have sex workers on our staff, and we believe in the slogan ‘nothing about us, without us!'”

Considering these statistics it seems the time is right to put decriminalisation back on the table, to push government to look at ways to protect sex workers who ply their trade illegally and in fear for their lives. Not because South Africa can make a buck from sex tourists or because it will save the police extra work, but because it’s the right thing to do. Because sex workers like Parker are being abused every day when all they’re trying to do is make a living and survive, just like the rest of us.

SWEAT toll free Help Line is: 0800 60 60 60.

*Not her real name

Doreen Gaura is a Zimbabwean writer living in Cape Town. This article is part of a special series on the 16 Days of Activism for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on everyday news. For the research quoted in this article and more information on the 16 Days Campaign go to www.genderlinks.org.za



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