“Sex workers are being persecuted everywhere for doing the only work that can help them make ends meet. Decriminalisation would not only help them but would even minimise child exploitation,” says sex worker Zandile Masango* (43). The Pietermaritzburg mother of two says she started sex work at the age of 21 back in 1997, in Johannesburg. Like many other sex workers across South Africa, she is aware of the constant stigma attached to the work and wishes the South African government would do something by decriminalising the industry.
“There are cases where we see minors being sexually exploited but we have no power to report the matter to the police as we find ourselves in a vulnerable corner, where one can also be arrested for being a sex worker,” she says.
Last week, Asijiki Coalition, a group of sex workers, activists, advocates, and human rights defenders advocating for the decriminalisation of sex work held a workshop in Durban on the challenges of bringing about this policy change.
The organisation says that decriminalisation of sex work in the country would allow those within the industry to function within a human rights framework.
The group’s coordinator Constance Mathe said they don’t anticipate any negativity should sex work be decriminalised in South Africa, if anything, it would allow them to operate within a safe zone.
“Decriminalisation means that sex workers would now be able to approach police stations and lay charges against their perpetrators should they be victimised. This would mean an opportunity for us to work hand-in-hand with the people within law enforcement department,” she said.
Mathe added that decriminalisation would also minimise the level of abuse within the industry.
“Sex workers are being abused by their bosses who force them to sleep with clients even when they don’t want to, and they can’t lay any charges because sex work is a crime in the country,” Mathe said.
Sex work in many countries is illegal, and sex workers continue to be at the receiving end of violence and abuse. In South Africa alone, numerous murder reports of sex workers have emerged on the media, with Asijiki saying those are just a few cases with many remaining unreported. In 2016, SWEAT launched a campaign called “SayHerName”, aimed at collecting a database of all murdered sex workers.
In 2017, a renowned artist Zwelethu Mthethwa was sentenced to 18 years in prison for the horrific murder of the then 23-year-old sex worker, Nokuphila Kumalo.
Meanwhile Asijiki and co are calling for decriminalisation of sex, they remain clear on their stance that it should be fully decriminalised, and not “Swedish style”. In Sweden, sex work remains legalised since 1999 under the scope that selling sex is legal but purchase remains a criminal act.
South African Justice System
The government has been at the receiving end of criticism from the public when it comes to justice system, which has been found to be flawed in many cases, which women and children who are victims of abuse and gender based violence being continuously failed.
Decriminalisation of the sex industry has been part of the government’s agenda for years now but South Africa’s law reform commission doesn’t recognise sex work as “decent work”, under the perception that it’s not only a matter of decency in question, but that of culture and morality. And although sex work is a consensual sex between adults, the commission argues that “The fact that money or any other financial or other incentive is exchanged cannot disguise what occurs in prostitution — the bodily and psychological violations involved are in fact sexual abuse and harassment.”
While sex work and human rights advocates are pushing for decriminalisation of sex work with the hope that those who face abuse will have a fighting chance at seeing justice prevails, when their perpetrators face the wrath of the law, the question of what are the chances that this will serve the purpose remains unanswered. But, Asijiki believes that it will take decriminalisation to cease the agony of sex workers, child sexual exploitation and sex trafficking.