Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) launched a report titled Why Sex Work Should be Decriminalised in South Africa on Wednesday.
The report aims to document the experiences of 46 sex workers in SA and efforts to change the status quo.
It is “based on research conducted between May and June 2018 by HRW in four provinces of South Africa”.
“Interviews were conducted with female sex workers, including three transgender women, in 10 sites in three provinces.
“Around 40 government and nongovernmental experts in health, law, and provisions of services for sex workers were also interviewed,” the report states.
Nosipho Vidima, human rights officer at Sweat, said government needed to act and bills needed to be drafted.
“The South African government has missed opportunities in the past to change the law. Sex workers need the department of justice to take action now to decriminalise [sex work],” Vidima said.
The report, according to HRW, “highlights deep inconsistencies between different government bodies in their approaches to sex work and services for sex workers”.
“The most notable difference was between the national department of health, which makes efforts to support sex workers with access to health care and the criminal justice system, which take a punitive approach,” the organisation said.
HRW said that, based on their research, sex workers faced arbitrary arrests and profiling by the South African Police Service (SAPS). To avoid this, they were forced to work in areas where they felt seriously unsafe.
Sex workers told the organisation that they were afraid to report crimes for fear of arrest or being laughed at.
A sex worker from Limpopo spoke to the organisation saying: “I’ve been arrested three times this year… Once I was in jail for two days; other times I paid fines or bribes. You can’t report to the police. Even with armed robbery the problem still stands – they will not take you seriously. They say you’re trying to sell to that person.”
Liesl Gerntholtz, acting deputy executive director for programme at Human Rights Watch, explained the dire experiences of sex workers.
“Sex workers in South Africa face arrest, detention, harassment and abuse from police, which also deter them from reporting rape or other brutal attacks against them.
“All over the world we and other rights groups find the same patterns of abuse where sex work is criminalised,” she added.
The report states that many interviewees had been raped by men who pretended to be clients and had been victims of robbery and violence, “including being beaten, whipped, and stabbed”.
In addition, the report states criminalisation is an obstruction to the prevention of diseases such as HIV/Aids.
“Outreach workers from [clinics] providing services to sex workers have been arrested and police have relied on sex workers’ possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution, discouraging them from carrying them. Some sex workers also reported that arrest and detention interrupted their essential HIV/Aids treatment.”
Vidima emphasised: “South African sex workers deserve to live in dignity and provide for their families without fear and shame. Decriminalising sex work is the clear way forward.”