Will 2010 be an opportunity or a threat to sex workers?

Date: September 14, 2009
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Accusations of theft and whether the Egyptian soccer team celebrated their historic 1-0 victory over the World Champions Italy with sex workers from Oxford Road almost overshadowed the sporting event itself. Though later found to be untrue, these events just re-enforce the fact that just as journalists, soccer fans and tourists will bombard the 2010 FIFA World Cup, sex work will likely form part of the event’s activities.
According to Deputy Chairperson of the Central Drug Authority, David Bayever, almost 40 000 sex workers from all across the region will flock to South Africa to get the share of the cake. However, the recent Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre Seminar on Violence Against Sex Workers, on July 15 in Johannesburg, highlighted that throughout South Africa sex workers are often unlawfully arrested by police, assaulted and even raped.
According to Tshwaranang, this practice violates the human rights of sex workers with impunity. Whether or not one agrees with the practice, there is a need to consider the human rights aspect.
Speaking at the seminar, a Johannesburg based sex worker who did not reveal her name, recounted how police take her and her co-workers to the police station. “They like driving through where are working with a van and take us to the police station. They would give us an option to choose either to sleep with them and get released for free or get arrested,À she said. “And obviously we would sleep with them so that we don’t get arrested.À
Perhaps most disturbing is how she told of opening a case on this, but the case is continually postponed. She said that since the police know each other, they always defend each other to make sure that the case does not go anywhere.
The Tshwaranang Seminar featured provincial commissioner from the Independent Complaints Directorate Siphokazi Moleshe, who mentioned that her organisation works to help victims of crime to report cases or to follow up on case delays.  
Although Moleshe stressed that the anonymous sex worker’s case would be followed-up, she gave her personal view on the issue. “De-criminalisation is the solution because when you are in a hiding you are vulnerable, but if it (sex work) can be de-criminalised or regulated it would be easy to deal with perpetrators,À said Moleshe.
In her article “Legalising prostitution for 2010,À Cherie Getchell points out that “it was South African police commissioner Jackie Selebi who first proposed the idea, arguing that if prostitution is legalised, it would free up police to deal with more pressing security issues.À
My head cannot stop nodding to this call. While police are busy checking in on the woman down the road, thugs are robbing a bank somewhere, or someone is busy mugging pedestrians on the street. This is not to say the police service has not made inroads trying to bring crime to its knees, but instead of bringing murderers and thieves to book, it seems a waste of police resources to prey on sex workers, especially to get some “action.À
It is not reasonable to legalise sex work just for benefit of an international football tournament and then outlaw it once more. Yet, as African National Congress Member of Parliament George Lekgetho stated during a Portfolio Committee on Arts and Culture meeting, “It is one of the things that would make it [the tournament] a success because we hear of many rapes, because people don’t have access to them [women].À This move would not be intended to promote sex work in South Africa but to protect human rights.
According to Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) Advocacy Programme Co-Coordinator, Vivienne Lalu, because of lack of regulation in Cape Town, police officials take advantage of certain by-laws to arrest sex workers. She pointed out that sex workers need to know that they cannot face arrest under the banner of loitering, for example.
Director General in the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, Menzi Simelane emphasised this point, telling SABC news that, “there was recently a case in the Cape High Court where it was ruled that police officers cannot arrest sex workers unless they intend to prosecute. They can’t be arrested for say, loitering,À he said.
Women’s Net Executive Director, Sally-Jean Shackleton said that with the 2010 World Cup knocking on our door, it is important that police officials go through training. “And not only about shooting and running, but also for them to know when and who to arrest,À she said.
Shackleton also mentioned that there ought to be campaigns that seek to educate sex workers about their rights, so that no police officials take advantage of them. During the seminar, the possible use of information communication technology arose. The idea was that sex workers could take advantage of social networks such as Facebook, MXIT, Twitter and Skype to alert one another of rape and abuse incidences.
However, no matter what type of technology we may have, if abusive behaviours towards sex workers is the accepted norm,     we will likely see an increase in 2010. De-criminalisation is a way to go. Lack of regulation means criminals take advantage to monopolise it to the agony of sex workers on the streets.
SWEAT has recently congratulated Gauteng Primier Nomvula Mokonyane on her dedication to deal with sex work “objectively with an open mindÀ (The Times 15 May 2009). It feels very refreshing to learn that there are leaders out there who are willing to give all they can to fight human rights abuses, of any citizens.
Mandla Masingi works as a communication assistant with CMFD Productions in Johannesburg. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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