Cape Town - International advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday released a report calling on the government to decriminalise sex work in South Africa.
Skye Wheeler, the researcher behind the project, consulted with 46 sex workers in the Western Cape and across South Africa to learn more about their experiences.
The majority of sex workers in South Africa are financially insecure black women who sell sex to care for children and other dependants. Sex work in South Africa has been illegal for sex workers since the 1900s and for their cients since 2007. According to the HRW report, decriminalising sex work would improve health and safety conditions for sex workers, and even assist in stemming the tide of human trafficking in South Africa.
Nosipho Vidima, a former sex worker and current activist at Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT), worked with researchers on the report. Vidima is calling on the government to fully decriminalise the profession.
“In a country with a Constitution that honours dignity, choice and bodily autonomy, partial decriminalisation is not a choice,. she says.
She was referring to a proposal that would decriminalise sex work only for sex workers. According to Vidima, the HRW report does not seek the abolition of sex work. Rather, HRW and SWEAT are calling for total decriminalisation to ensure the safety and economic independence of sex workers in South Africa.
Sex workers in South Africa face dangerous conditions, often having to work in dark and dodgy outdoor spaces and not having trust in the police.
The report shares cases of extortion in which police officers have attempted to coerce sex workers into sexual acts in return for getting out of police custody.
Sex workers are also reluctant to report rape or other crimes against them because they feel police officers will either arrest them or not take them seriously. Sixteen of the 46 sex workers interviewed by HRW reported being raped.
The report also claims that decriminalisation of sex work would increase positive HIV health outcomes for sex workers.
Police officers see the carrying of condoms as a form of evidence for arrest, so sex workers are reluctant to keep them on their persons.
Additionally, because of the likelihood of sex workers being placed in detention, their anti-retroviral therapy is frequently interrupted.
In addition to decriminalisation benefiting sex workers, it could also help victims of sex trafficking escape. Sex workers who operate in "hot spots" have said they report incidents of under-aged girls selling sex to trusted organisations such as SWEAT or Sisonke, another advocacy group, as they feel the police are not trustworthy.
If sex work was decriminalised, the line between work and trafficking would bet easier to pinpoint and victims could more easily be able to access help.
In March this year President Cyril Ramaphosa vowed to decriminalise sex work, declaring this stance was part of a legislative goal to reduce violence and murder against women in South Africa.