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‘An uprising’: how South African sex workers fought for decriminalisation

… and what they plan to do next

Only have a minute to read this newsletter? Here it is in brief:

  • 🇿🇦 South Africa is on the brink of making sex work legal for clients and workers.
  • ✊🏾 It’s been a long fight for sex workers, who say decriminalisation will protect them from violence and diseases like HIV.
  • 📣 Sex workers’ rights groups explain how they charted a path to victory, and what’s next for the industry.

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By Victoria Goldiee

South Africa could soon become the third and largest country in the world to fully legalise sex work. In December, the government signed a bill to decriminalise both the buying and selling of sex. The groups who fought hardest for this change – sex workers’ rights organisations – say decriminalisation and acceptance are just the beginning of making life safer for people who sell sex in South Africa.

While some countries including France and Sweden apply the Nordic model, which criminalises only clients and not sex workers, South Africa will join New Zealand and Belgium in fully legalising both sides of the transaction if the bill becomes law. The proposed legislation does not regulate practices within the industry, but its main aim is to reduce the mistreatment of these workers and provide them with better labour conditions. It also clears the criminal records of those convicted of crimes related to sex work.

Photo: SG ZA. License: CC BY-SA 4.0.

Sex worker Thabang Nambibe says she and her peers will soon be able to speak out about exploitation and violence in the industry without fear of repercussions and retaliation from the police. “With sex workers no longer labelled as criminals, we can work much better with the police to tackle the violence that we face to create a safe environment,” she told the Impact newsletter.

It could be some time before the law is implemented. After a period of public consultation, the bill must now return to cabinet before making its way through the National Assembly. But sex workers’ rights groups are already celebrating the government’s change of heart after decades of activism on behalf of their members.

Today, there are an estimated 150,000 sex workers in South Africa. Working in massage parlours, strip clubs, suburban homes and at truck stops, they are some of the most marginalised people in the country and are vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and ill health, particularly HIV. Despite the risks involved, more and more people are taking up sex work, partly as a result of the growing cost of living crisis.

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Women make up about 90% of the industry and are at a higher risk of harm compared to their male counterparts. South Africa has some highest rates of sexual violence against women in the world, with almost 1,000 deaths each year and 10,000 reported rape cases in 2022 alone. A 2021 study found that 70% of sex workers in South Africa had experienced physical violence, and 58% had been raped, with clients the most common perpetrators.

Sex workers’ rights groups say it is currently left to them to step in to protect workers from violence and ill health. Rahman Sisonke of the Sisonke Sex Worker Movement records and disseminates evidence of human rights violations.

“Week in and week out, I see so many cases of abuse meted out against women like me, and since we created a hotline for help, they usually call on us. I ensure [we] keep these cases documented for future purposes, and I act as a third party between them and law enforcement agencies to report their stories; however, it is only in some cases that justice is served.”

The legislation has been a long time coming. In 2017, sex workers’ rights activists believed they had made a breakthrough, and that decriminalisation would be included in the country’s five-year plan on tackling HIV and sexually transmitted infections. But “the newly formed Law Reform Committee recommended that the country retain its laws to prevent discord overall,” says Constance Mathe, the head co-ordinator of the Asijiki Coalition for the Decriminalisation of Sex Work. “My team and I were at a standstill when this happened, but thankfully the conversation started [again] in 2020.”

Photo: SG ZA. License: CC BY-SA 4.0.

Feminist groups view the decriminalisation bill as only the start of what the government should be prepared to do to provide a safe environment for sex workers. Mathe says her efforts to talk to the national health department about HIV treatment programmes received little feedback.

“It wasn’t until I single-handedly went around different districts educating these workers myself on their reproductive rights and it made its way across social media that they realised the importance and began discussions about working on this program,” she says.

A spokesperson for the National Department of Health told the Impact newsletter: “The entire process to create such awareness programs can be quite complicated and cumbersome hence the limitations in past responses. But we are still striving to make our department as inclusive as can be in due time.”

Today, there are still many people who do not approve of the decriminalisation bill. The conservative African Christian Democratic Party has organised protests against decriminalisation, and a collective of international organisations sent an open letter to the government warning the bill could turn South Africa a “a global destination country for sex trafficking”.

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Sally Jean Shackleton of the Sex Workers’ Education and Advocacy Taskforce cites misinformation and media stereotypes as her toughest opposition.

“Most media outlets are always looking for clickbait, and they tend to focus on stories painting sex workers as immoral villains to fit in with the narrative,” she says. “I constantly use my platform to challenge these stereotypes and provide contextual information to prevent further harm.”  She is calling on the government to put specific measures in place to combat misinformation about sex work.

Keisha Marite, a gender equality expert at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, says that the proposed bill shows the success of feminist coalition-building in South Africa.

“Throughout the many different push and pull tactics I’ve seen play out over the years, it’s obvious that these women mean business and there is more to come moving forward. We’re witnessing an uprising in history and as such, a movement in society.”

Victoria Goldiee is a freelance writer with a penchant for telloing the untold stories of under-represented communities.

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