Decriminalise sex work now

Decriminalise sex work  now
This picture were taken by a participant during a photo project titled, “Working the City: Experiences of Migrant Women in Inner-City Johannesburg”. It was a collaboration with the Market Photo Workshop, Sisonke Sex Worker Movement, and the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University.

Rough estimates place the HIV prevalence rate among sex workers between 44% and 69% and suggest that one in five new HIV infections are related to sex work. Although the links between sex work and vulnerability to HIV have been recognised since the earliest days of the epidemic, surveys indicate that workers still lack adequate access to HIV prevention services. To date, South Africa’s HIV response has devoted insufficient resources to addressing this problem.

The law compounds this failure by criminalising sex work. This pushes the industry underground, and facilitates the abuse of sex workers by police, clients and pimps. Speaking at the symposium, the Deputy Minister of Police, Maggie Sotyu said, “The unnecessary use of force…by police is criminal,” and noted that sex work should be recognised as work. “Freedom in 1994 is freedom for all,” she observed. “You can’t be harassed by police officers and say you are free.”

Criminalisation also places a burden on the country’s overstretched police services. Sex work activists argue that enforcing the laws that criminalise sex work absorbs significant resources that, given South Africa’s high crime levels, would be better deployed elsewhere.

Stop harassing us

A recent study by the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC), Sisonke (a sex worker organisation) and the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) found that seven out of ten surveyed sex workers reported some form of abuse by police officials. Many experienced more than one violation.

The study, titled “Stop harassing us! Tackle real crime! A report on human rights violations by police against sex workers in South Africa”, draws on interviews with 308 sex workers in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria and Limpopo Province. Its findings indicate that police may be the primary abusers of sex workers. Indeed, the researchers suggest that the existing legal framework encourages police corruption and abuse.

The study found:

  • Nearly one in six workers who approached the WLC had been sexually or physically assaulted, and one in three harassed, by the police.
  • Among the 45 percent of sex workers that had been arrested, more than 85 percent of arrests had been carried out by a police officer not wearing proper identification.
  • Almost half of those who had been arrested were held beyond the 48-hour maximum permitted by law. Nearly 70 percent had been denied access to food or water whilst in detention.
  • Just under half of all sex workers who were arrested and 40 percent of those who were fined, said that police did not follow the formal procedures required.

(NOTE: This study relies on a relatively small sample that might not be representative of the experience of all sex workers. Even so, the results are alarming and raise serious questions.)

The report outlined the following recommendations:

  • Laws prohibiting the selling and buying of sex should be repealed to facilitate increased access to health and other social services. This would honour the international treaties that South Africa has signed and ratified protecting women against violence.
  • The Commission for Gender Equality and the Human Rights Commission should investigate the human rights 
violations that sex workers endure. The state must be held accountable for its violations.
  • Police commissioners should immediately issue directives prohibiting staff from harassing and arresting sex workers for ulterior purposes. Senior officers should enforce compliance with the Western Cape High Court interdict of 2009, which bans the arbitrary 
arrest of sex workers.  (See more here )
  • Law enforcement leaders together with sex workers should establish guidelines for the conduct of police officers when interacting with sex workers, and establish mechanisms for dealing with unlawful conduct by police.
  • Sex workers should receive services in the form of legal advice, legal representation and health care.


[box]South Africa’s first national sex worker symposium was held in August this year in Pretoria. Delegates explored and shared best practices in the HIV response for sex workers. The event also saw the unveiling of the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC) National Sex Worker Sector Plan—the first plan to coordinate a multi-sectoral response to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support for sex workers.[/box]

By Jayshree Pather