Kholi Buthelezi, who talked about sex workers in SA

Cape Town - The government should legalise sex work because it would help protect those in the illegal industry from being harassed and assaulted by customers and the police, a sex-worker campaigner has urged.

Speaking at the International Aids Conference in Melbourne, Kholi Buthelezi, who heads the Sisonke Sex Worker Movement in Cape Town, said that despite the threat of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, sex workers were often unable to protect themselves because the police confiscated their condoms since prostitution was illegal in South Africa.

“Sex workers get arrested for carrying condoms in my country. Police are so obsessed about wanting to arrest us that they even know where most sex workers hide them. They look around the trees, ask sex workers to empty their bags, and they see a condom, that leads to arrest. Sometimes they tear them up in front of you or trash them on the floor.”

As result of harassment many sex workers had unprotected sex, putting themselves at risk of HIV infection.

Many were desperate for money because they had families to support and “will rather engage in risky behaviour than not get money”.

Due to criminalisation of sex work in the country many sex workers were unable to report the police as that would result in them being targeted.

She claimed that in some instances the police did not take sex workers to the police station, but “they spite you by dumping you in the middle of nowhere”.

Despite being robbed and sometimes beaten or raped by their clients, Buthelezi said often sex workers were not able to report such cases to the police due to the victimisation they faced. It was not only the police, but also health workers, who “victimise and judge“ when they sought health care in clinics.

“At the end of the day it’s like you have no place to go.

“When you go to the police you know you are going to be harassed, but you can’t even go to the clinic because nurses judge you and tell you that you have a sexually transmitted disease because you are a whore. There’s no protection at all. We feel that all this victimisation will end when sex work is decriminalised,” she said.

Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, head of the UCT-based Desmond Tutu HIV Centre, whose research on HIV and sex work conceded that despite sex workers, including transgender men and women, being among the most heavily burdened communities for HIV infection, they faced limited access to prevention, treatment and care in many parts of the world.

Bekker recommended that biomedical technologies, including topical and oral antiretroviral-based pre-exposure prophylaxis and other preventatives be considered for this group.

Cape Argus