By Ishtar Lakhani
This year marked the 21st International AIDS Conference (AIC) held in Durban – 16 years since this conference was last held on South African soil in 2000. So it was an apt time to ask what has
changed for sex workers in the last 16 years? The answer is, very little.
In those 16 years: the apartheid-era law that criminalises sex work remains unchanged; sex workers are still on the frontline in the battle against HIV/AIDS; violence against sex workers continues to occur with impunity, and sex workers are still stigmatised and discriminated against based on their occupation.
Undeterred by this lack of change, the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce and the Sisonke Movement of Sex Workers in South Africa mobilised to put sex workers’ issues on the agenda at the IAC. We were there to make our struggle visible. We were there not only to occupy civil society spaces but to claim a space at the table that is usually reserved for the ‘professionals’ – doctors, scientists, politicians, policy makers. We were there as human rights’ activists, experts, and academics, to ensure there was ‘nothing about us, without us’.
Many of the conference sessions focused on sex work and sex workers are acknowledged globally as a ‘key affected population’ in HIV prevention, treatment and care, yet sex workers were barred from the conference – the very platforms that were created to ‘help us’. Two of our delegates were refused access to the conference because the accreditation process revealed they had previous criminal records and a number of our contingent experienced severe transphobia from conference organisers and security. The process was humiliating and a clear example of how criminalisation results in bizarre double-speak.
But these hurdles did not stop us. We arrived in our numbers determined not to be left outside. We were unrelenting and unapologetic in our calls to decriminalise sex work, and we can say with certainty that our voices were heard. Our voices were heard by our politicians (the Deputy Minister of the Department of Social Development wore our bright orange ‛This is what a sex worker looks like’ t-shirt), celebrities (Charlize Theron and Sir Elton John both showed their support for decriminalisation), and Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron invited us to share the stage.
The question is now is not whether we were heard, but whether our voices are still ringing in the heads and hearts of South Africans. Will the Department of Justice finally release the South African Law Reform Report, whose process started 17 years ago? Will policy makers listen to the overwhelming evidence that decriminalisation is the best legal model to ensure that sex workers can access their rights? Will we be able to attend the next conference and not be criminals?