File picture: Christian Hartmann

Cape Town - Sex workers say they support the decriminalisation of their work in the hope of increased protection from abuse at the hands of their clients.

Debate has ensued over the possibility of decriminalising sex work, with the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) saying this is the only viable approach to protecting and promoting the rights and dignity of sex workers.

At a meeting of the Multiparty Women’s Caucus last week, members of the CGE, Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat), South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development discussed the possible decriminalisation of sex work.

“You need to be strong in this work,” a sex worker in the city centre said. “Some guys are very nasty and you need to be brave.”

She said she felt sex workers had no rights, and there was little they could do to enforce payment when clients did not pay.

“This is my own body and I work for my kids. I need money and we need to eat. I think (decriminalisation) is actually a good thing. We want rights of our own and having some protection would be welcome,” she said.

With decriminalisation, sex workers would feel more comfortable to report and ask for help if abused or assaulted, she added.

Another sex worker said decriminalisation could mean a reduction in the abuse of workers.

She said it may mean fewer cases of rape and negate the subsequent effect on sex workers and their families.

“You get sick people in this world. Once a guy picked me up, and he had blood on his shirt and there were knives and tools on his back seat.

“I got away, but there are so many girls who get picked up and killed. Because they (the clients) know the law and they know everyone is against us. They know they can get away with it because there is nothing we can do,” she said.

However, the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation SA (Cesesa) deemed a decriminalised sex industry the worst possible policy.

“The policy of legalisation or decriminalisation is a gift to pimps, brothel owners and crime syndicates, the very people who mercilessly exploit women and children for profit.

“A decriminalised sex industry also significantly expands prostitution rather than contains it, luring many more vulnerable women and children into a life of unspeakable sexual exploitation, abuse and misery,” Cesesa said.

“International studies reveal the policy of decriminalised or legalised prostitution failed wherever it was implemented.

“Instead of protecting the human rights and dignity of women trapped in the sex trade, decriminalised prostitution had the exact opposite effect.”

Cesesa also believes South African policy should promote exit programmes, rehabilitation, education and the reintegration of exploitedindividuals.

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Cape Times