Sonke rejects the SA Law Reform Commission’s recommendations for continued criminalisation of sex work

Today the Minister of Justice revealed the recommendations of the South African Law Reform Commission on how sex work should be regulated in South Africa. Sonke welcomes the release of the report.

We note however that the Commission and the Department of Justice and Correctional Services spent close to 20 years to finalise its recommendations despite strong appeals from civil society for the unnecessarily lengthy process to be completed, as well as unsuccessful attempts to use the Promotion of Access to Information Act to obtain the report, and many pickets and demonstrations by sex workers, sex worker advocates and human rights activists.

Currently South Africa criminalises all aspects of sex work under an archaic law that was forged during apartheid – the Sexual Offences Act of 1957. Several studies have documented the harms of applying criminal law to the sex industry. Criminalisation of sex work has been shown to drive sex workers underground and away from services,1 increase stigma and create obstacles to accessing programmes;2 and reduce sex workers’ power, rendering them vulnerable to violence, human rights violations and corruption.3 These aspects make societies unsafe and increase the risk of violence and abuse, particularly for women. It would seem that the Law Commission has ignored this evidence and the many sex worker murders that have taken place over the last two decades, and recommend the status quo with a slight modification that includes diversion programmes for sex workers.

Internationally, evidence shows that reducing and eventually eliminating violence against women (and men and transgender people) will only be possible in a context where the criminal law governing sex work is completely removed, and where sex workers are brought under the framework of occupational health & safety laws, and labour law where these are based on human rights principles.

The Law Commission’s recommendation for on-going criminalisation is not based on evidence or South African realities and does not respect the human rights of sex workers.

Sonke therefore calls on the Department of Justice and Correctional Services to strongly reject the Law Reform Commission’s recommendations and to decriminalise sex work. This will make sex work safer, and also create a safer and more respectful society.


Marlise Richter, Policy Development & Advocacy Unit Manager, Sonke Gender Justice,, 082 858 9927


  1. Gable et al (2008). HIV/AIDS, Reproductive and Sexual Health, and the Law. American Journal of Public Health, 98 October.
  2. UNAIDS 2009. Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work. In: UNAIDS (ed.). Geneva: UNAIDS.
  3. F.Scorgie et al (2012). Socio-demographic characteristics and behavioral risk factors of female sex workers in sub-saharan Africa: a systematic review. AIDS Behav, 16, 920-33.