101215. Gauteng Provincial Legislature, Johannesburg. Gauteng Sex workers after debating decriminalization of their trade. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Johannesburg - Gauteng sex workers have made impassioned pleas for the decriminalisation of their trade.

The workers took their frustration to the Gauteng Provincial Legislature on Thursday to fight what they called exploitation, abuse, discrimination and violence.

Thursday was their day to make their voices heard, as sex workers stood before the Speaker Ntombi Mekgwe and gave testimony on the difficulties they faced and how decriminalisation of their work would solve problems such as their access to justice and quality healthcare, HIV infections, access to UIF contributions and payments, as well as ending police brutality, among others.

Palesa Mokoena spoke with zeal about the problems sex workers encounter, eliciting applause from a gallery full of co-workers.

“We work for our children in order to give them a better future and for them to get to schools that we couldn’t,” she said.

Another sex worker, who wouldn’t name herself, said: “Sex workers are citizens of this country. We vote and pay tax, yet we can’t apply for bank loans because we have no payslips,” she said.

“We can’t own bonded property because of this, so we have to wait for RDP houses which aren’t guaranteed.

“We are forced to fall under the hands of mashonisa (loan sharks) and are expected to work underground like the mafia, yet just in June a sex worker was raped by a mashonisa because she couldn’t repay a loan of R2 000 that had become R10 000.”

In a report on the decriminalisation of sex work that was unanimously adopted at the legislature, it was alleged that sex workers were over-policed but under-protected and were, as a result, vulnerable to violence and predators targeting them with virtual impunity.

“Police officers always tell sex workers that they do not have any rights. An example will be that of police officers raping sex workers. Sex workers are afraid to lodge a case against them in fear of their lives,” the report read, in part.

In the report, sex workers decried how police officers confiscated their condoms as evidence that they were sex workers and how they were allegedly denied their HIV antiretroviral treatment when in police detention.

Thursday also marked the commemoration by the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) and Sisonke National Sex Workers Movement in South Africa of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

The day is celebrated on December 17, but the groups arranged memorial events in several provinces on Thursday to stand in solidarity with sex workers and their coalition, named Asijiki, to decriminalise the trade.

Sweat said that last year saw a “high number of brutal murders” of sex workers, one being Desiree Murugan, whose body was found beheaded in Durban.

“In November (this year) alone, four sex workers were murdered in South Africa. The deep stigma and vulnerability of sex workers to violence and harassment has further been illustrated by the recent actions of the police in Pretoria, who, in response to the murder of a sex worker, terrorised the deceased's colleagues who were willing to give statements, and set fire, four times, to their shacks and possessions,” the group said in a statement.

The legislature also adopted two other reports, following submissions on both, on the decriminalisation of sex work - one of access to health ser-vices and another on access to the economy.

The chairwoman of committees at the legislature, Nomantu Nkomo-Ralehoko, said they would submit the reports to the various departments, and the sex workers would be given feedback next year regarding their submissions.

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The Star

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