Growing calls to legalise sex work in SA

By Lesego Makgatho Time of article published Sep 17, 2021

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Tuesday, the 14th of September marked International Sex Workers Day - a day on which women and men who ply the trade call for it to be decriminalised.

According to Media Advocacy Officer at Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), Megan Lessing, this day is important because sex workers need to come out and be visible to communities as they don’t exist in isolation.

“The Sex Workers Pride is a day when sex workers need to come out and be visible so that the people in the community can understand that sex workers are there. Sex workers are living in our community. People need to know that these are mothers, fathers, human beings we are talking about.”

She believes that the criminalisation of sex work makes sex workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, it denies them their right to bodily autonomy, access to basic services, the protection of their human rights, sources of income and undermines sex work as work.

To celebrate the day, NGOs Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), Sisonke and Asijiki hosted Sex Worker Pride 2021, which was virtual and a march, #MarchforDecrim, in Cape Town. The event aimed to “celebrate sex workers’ self-determination and the achievements of the sex workers’ rights movement.”

Dudu Dlamini who is the Manager of SWEAT said sex workers’ rights should be treated as labour rights.

“It is 2021 and sex work is still criminalised under the Sexual Offences Act that was drafted during the apartheid era. Sex workers autonomously choose to do this work; they are providers - mothers, fathers, caregivers, taxpayers and should be treated as such. Sex work must be recognised as work! Sex workers’ rights should be part of labour rights,” she said.

Constance Mathe has been a sex worker for over 15 years. She is the National Coordinator of the Asijiki Coalition, an organisation advocating for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa. In this country, sex work is illegal for both the client and worker.

She says the most important thing this walk will highlight is the safety of sex workers.

“Sex workers are not safe in the streets. Street-based sex workers are facing many challenges such as robbery and rape because of the criminal laws that affect sex workers in this country. They are not able to report these matters to the police because they identify as a criminal. They (the police) are the very people who should protect us but in many instances, police themselves violate sex workers,” she said.

Speaking extensively about her experiences in the work that she does, the 35-year-old mother of two said she has been violated several times as a sex worker and has been taken advantage of as her work makes her vulnerable.

“We are mothers. I do this job and leave my children at home. I do it to provide for them. We are not safe at all. I’ve been raped, I've been abused, but I’ve been afraid to report because I don’t want to put my life at risk,” she said.

What sex workers want to see in terms of the decriminalisation of sex work, is a change in the laws of the country.

“We want the business to be recognised. We want the laws in South Africa to recognise and accommodate us as sex workers. Once we have regulated laws in place, it’ll be easy for those who work indoors e.g., brothels, etc, for sex workers not to be abused by the owners. We also want to be recognised as taxpayers so we can claim from tax,” she said.

Nontombi Khoza (38) has been a sex worker for six years. She believes this recognition is important for the sex work industry. She believes they are a vulnerable group in society and has always wanted to do her work freely without being criminalised or stigmatised.

“I used to be street-based and in working on the streets, I experienced rape and robbery. I was raped twice. When you report it to the police, the condom is used as evidence and you have no case because you are doing something illegal. All we want is for sex work to be decriminalised. We have clients who buy into this business. We are killing no one. All we are trying to do is make a living and survive,” said Khoza.

Lessing added that the economic fallout for sex workers and their children/dependants has been tremendous - many are struggling to meet their most basic needs such as pay rent and buy adequate groceries.

“Many make a living from sex work. We advocate for sex work to be regulated and recognised. Sex workers are people just like us, who can contribute to the economy just like everyone,” she said.

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