Durban - Sex workers in Durban on Friday welcomed the call by the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) for the decriminalisation of sex work.
The sex workers said legalising the trade would ensure that they finally would have access to essential services, such as health care.
Decriminalising it would also create a platform for women in the industry to bring to the government’s attention the challenges that they were faced with, including discrimination and abuse at the hands of police.
The sex workers said they would support the call by CGE, saying the country was lagging behind international trends in its sex laws when compared to other countries.
“It is high time the country legalises what we do,” said a sex worker who identified herself as Slim Sexy.
Organisations and safety centres that work with sex workers have, however, expressed outrage at the proposal, saying the move would undermine women’s human right to dignity and exploit the vulnerability caused by poverty and gender inequality.
The organisations said they would lobby against the proposal, because it would fuel human trafficking and organised crime.
At the launch of the institution’s position on the country’s sex laws this week, the CGE’s commissioner, Janine Hicks, called for all laws against sex workers to be repealed. “We believe it is the only viable approach to promoting and protecting the dignity and rights of sex workers,” she said.
Human trafficking and child sex would remain crimes, she said. Hicks said the commission recently embarked on an investigation into the legislative response to sex work, and concluded that the current legal regime that criminalises sex work had failed sex workers and instead perpetuated substantive abuse of their constitutional rights.
Decriminalisation would mean reviewing legislation, including labour laws and retraining police officers.
She added that sex workers would be required to pay tax.
However, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, founder and executive director of Embrace Dignity, a non-profit organisation advocating legal reform to end prostitution and sex trafficking, said she was concerned that the process was done without proper consultation of a broad range of civil society organisations, as well as the people suffering from exploitation.
Having interviewed and worked with women engaged in “street prostitution”, Madlala-Routledge said she had learnt that the overwhelming majority of women wanted to exit the industry and be supported in finding alternative means of sustaining themselves.
Gloria DeGee, director of Umgeni Community Empowerment Centre, an organisation that offers support and service to women looking to leave the sex industry, said:
“The girls that we take in are broken, rejected and hurt.
“We often have to detox them of all the drugs they pump into their bodies so that they are immune to the work that they do.”
DeGee said legalising the trade would have an adverse effect on the HIV/Aids infection rate.
But Bafana Khumalo, director of Sonke Gender Justice Network, said he begged to differ, saying if given the go-ahead, the move would minimise infection as women would have access to health services.
“Decriminalising the trade will also mean that these women will no longer be abused by their clients and the police,” he said.