‘Legalising prostitution can save lives’

Up to 72% of prostitutes in Gauteng alone live with HIV, with many more in KwaZulu-Natal, the epicentre of the Aids epidemic. File picture: Christian Hartmann

Up to 72% of prostitutes in Gauteng alone live with HIV, with many more in KwaZulu-Natal, the epicentre of the Aids epidemic. File picture: Christian Hartmann

Published Apr 29, 2016


South Africa is moving towards decriminalising prostitution and as Zohra Mohamed Teke investigates in part two of this series, the issue is attracting excitement amid plans by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to do just that.

Durban - “I don’t always carry condoms with me because when police arrest us they use the condoms to prove we are sex workers.”

It’s a common cry among many prostitutes across South Africa who argue that HIV can only be reduced among prostitutes if the government decriminalises the trade.

Their argument is in line with calls by the World Health Organisation, which in 1992 called on countries to work towards the decriminalisation of prostitution and the elimination of non-criminal laws against prostitutes.

Now, 24 years on, South Africa is finally starting to heed that call, with the recently launched plan by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to reduce HIV among the country’s 153 000 prostitutes. With South Africa carrying the highest burden of HIV rates - and female prostitutes up to 13 times more at risk than other women - there is an urgency to ensure drastic measures are implemented to meet universal targets for a reduction in Aids.

And despite the government’s massive success in Aids treatment - the largest in the world - the country continues to battle 430 000 new infections each year.

Up to 72% of prostitutes in Gauteng alone live with HIV, with many more in KwaZulu-Natal, the epicentre of the Aids epidemic.

“Our government hands out millions of free condoms each year and encourages HIV testing. But what is the point if just having condoms in our possession increases our risk of arrest and criminal charges?

“Sex work is illegal in this country, but many of us are forced into the profession as a way to survive. We are isolated and cannot freely access health services because of the stigma associated with what we do,” says Joyce, a 49-year-old prostitute who has been working in the profession for 29 years. She supports her son and six grandchildren who all depend on her income.

The double-edged sword approach of countries, like South Africa, which promote condom use yet fail to address concerns of prostitutes has prompted the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law to decry “the impossibility of governments stigmatising people on one hand, while simultaneously actually helping to reduce their risk of HIV transmission or exposure on the other”. It’s an issue that’s been the rallying call of the Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) which has hailed Ramaphosa’s plan as “encouraging”.

“Sex workers are tired of waiting for legal recognition, and as an organisation we are tired of trying to reach sex workers behind a barrier of criminalisation and stigma,” says Sweat national director Sally Shackleton. “We’re tired of burying sex workers and protesting at court to get justice for the murders of sex workers (if these even get to court). It’s been over a decade since law reform was first mooted - and we don’t want to wait longer.

“The Launch of the South African national Sex Worker HIV Plan was a step in the right direction.

“We are very encouraged by the statement by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who emphasised that sex workers need protection under law and deserve rights like all others. Sweat and Sisonke support the legal reform mechanism of decriminalisation - which is very different from regulation,” she said.

Prostitution is here to stay and South Africa is no different - even in tough economic times, sex sells. Advocates in favour of decriminalisation cite international trends where such policies have worked.

Amsterdam - the legal prostitution capital of the world - boasts a less than 2% rate of HIV prevalence among female prostitutes.

On the flip side, however, rates of gonorrhoea have increased to just over 2%. Critics argue this is largely due to the influx of foreign prostitutes who now dominate the famous sex area of the “red light” district and many of whom have pre-existing sexual diseases before entering Amsterdam. Added to this is the non-use of condoms during oral sex - ostensibly because such practice commands a higher pay.

Despite the success in curbing HIV rates, anti-prostitution lobbyists argue that legalising the trade has not worked. Instead, they say, it has led to a surge in human trafficking and an increase in crime bosses and pimps who exploit young women.

This is echoed elsewhere too in countries like India and Thailand, where although legal, the profession has led to the sexual enslavement of young girls - despite a reduction in HIV rates. With countries grappling the pros and cons of legalising the oldest profession in the world, there has been no uniform approach and each country has adopted what it feels to be the best fit based on the country’s approach to prostitution.

The Swedish model, although increasing in popularity in other parts of the world, will not work, says Ishtar Lakhani, Sweat’s advocacy and human rights defence manager. “Under the Swedish model, it is illegal to buy, but not sell, sex.

“Criminalisation of soliciting leads to police abuse of at-risk outdoor workers. If either sex workers or their clients are criminalised, they will try to hide from the police.

“This allows clients to remain nameless, all of which makes sex workers more at risk of attack.

“Often clients are the only ones able to report someone being trafficked or forced into sex work, and criminalising clients would make them unwilling to report suspected abuse for fear of being arrested,” explains Lakhani.

Instead, Sweat has looked to the New Zealand and Australian model, which it says is best suited to South Africa.

The organisation describes the model as the only approach to prostitution based on the human rights of prostitutes. Under this model, aimed at decriminalising prostitution:

* Criminal charges for prostitution are removed.

* Brothels and single prostitutes can operate as ordinary businesses.

* Laws protecting prostitutes from special risks are put in place.

* Under-age prostitution, forced labour and trafficking remain criminalised.

“Under decriminalisation there is less discrimination around sex work,” says Lakhani.

“Sex workers are able to get health services more easily and are more likely to report crimes to the police. There is also a better balance of power so that sex workers are less at risk of abuse by brothel managers and are able to refuse services to clients. Costs to government of policing and control are less.

“Decriminalisation of sex work would be right for South Africa because its highest law, the constitution, is based on human rights and equality,” says Lakhani. “It is built on a public health model and facts that promote the least harm and non-violence. It allows for a good two-way relationship between sex workers and government (the police) and this builds respect for the rights of sex workers, the great majority of whom are women.”

The Mercury

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