Sonke calls on government to join Eastern Cape MEC of Social Development in supporting decriminalisation of sex work


Statement issued by SWEAT, Sisonke, Sonke Gender Justice, Women’s Legal Centre and TB/HIV Care Association

Civil society organisations call on Ministers and MEC’s in the new cabinet to follow the footsteps of Eastern Cape MEC of Social Development, Nancy Sihlwayi, for her stance on supporting the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa.

Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), Sisonke sex workers movement of South Africa, Sonke Gender Justice, Women’s Legal Centre and TB/HIV Care applaud MEC Nancy Sihlwayi for her courage and insight in taking the position to support decriminalisation.

Last week at an ‘Intergenerational Dialogue’ workshop in Southernwood, Mthatha – MEC Sihlwayi made a public announcement of her intentions to table a programme for the decriminalisation of sex work. The Hon. MEC joins international and local human rights and health institutions in making the call to decriminalise sex work – among them are the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS and the Commission for Gender Equality.

The MEC made the announcement at a time that SWEAT and Sisonke have been dealing with a rise in the murders of sex workers across South Africa. In the month of July and August 2014, five female sex workers have been brutally murdered, three of those murdered are under the age of 25. The most recent case of this gruesome series of murders is that of Desiree Murugan, a 39 year old Durban sex worker who was beheaded and her body discarded at a stadium in Chatsworth.

The current criminalised status of sex work harms sex workers as it perpetuates stigma, limits access to health and rights – including labour rights – and creates an enabling environment for abuse and violence. Another implication of stigma is that perpetrators may specifically target sex workers and can do so with impunity because their violence goes unreported. The law as it stands is untenable and un-implementable.

Sex workers may fear arrest or harassment by SAPS and therefore may work in isolated areas thereby placing their safety at risk. The criminalisation of sex work may give sex workers the perception that they have no recourse to justice which may result in a reluctance to report crimes, for this reason, it is particularly important for SAPS to work with sex workers so that they will report crimes committed against them.

The criminalisation of sex work, coupled with the high levels of violence perpetrated by the state through the police, disables sex workers from accessing justice and reinforces stigma that prevents sex workers from accessing health care and social services. A recent leading international journal, The Lancet, published a study that found that decriminalising sex work could prevent 33-46% new HIV infections in the next decade.1

We call on the South African Government to decriminalise sex work now, and not another death later. We must reduce sex workers vulnerability to violence at the hands of police, clients and intimate partners. This will ensure that sex workers are afforded the same rights, in law and in practice as others in the country are given.


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