News / South Africa

4 minute read
26 Aug 2021
8:10 am

Sex workers exposed to extremely high levels of violence – SAMRC study


The economic downturn due to Covid-19 leads to 'survival-type' sex work and the perpetration of violence against women.

Photo: iStock

A recent study by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and the Perinatal HIV Research Unit (PHRU) shows female sex workers are exposed to extremely high levels of violence.

According to the SAMRC, the study aimed at investigating and describing the prevalence and patterns of exposure of female sex workers (FSWs) to violence in the hands of intimate partners and other men, such as clients, police and others.

SAMRC study of sex workers

‘Extremely high levels of violence’

This national study linked to sex worker programmes, using interviews conducted with 3,005 FSWs from across all South African provinces and also sought to describe the factors associated with having been raped in the past year.

“One of the key findings of the study is that FSWs are exposed to extremely high levels of violence,” the SAMRC reported this week.

In the previous year, almost three-quarters (71%) had been exposed to physical violence and more than half (58%) had been raped.

Vulnerable to rape

The study also found that sex workers were extremely vulnerable to rape by clients, men they encounter in the community, as well as from their intimate partners.

“However, a particularly concerning finding was that one in seven women had been raped by a policeman,” the study highlighted. 

The latest nationwide study was conducted in 2019 and completed before sex workers’ lives were disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to investigators, this is the first time evidence has been available from a national sample of FSWs, and it has illuminated the health and complex life experiences of these vulnerable women.  

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Violence, mental health and HIV

The study also followed a 2016 pilot conducted in Soweto, Johannesburg, amongst FSWs, which found that these workers were extremely susceptible to violence, mental health problems, and signs of HIV drug resistance.

“Within the overarching context in which these workers are discriminated against as poor, uneducated women and as members of a profession that is criminalised, the research showed that women were much more vulnerable to rape by male non-partners if they worked on the streets, sold sex more frequently across the months, and had begun selling sex in their childhood.” 

Investigators also found that they were also more likely exposed to abuse if they were homeless or felt they needed to use drugs or alcohol to cope with sex work.

“Sex workers who had been raped were much more likely to experience depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Violence prevention projects

The Principal Investigator who has been working with FSWs for two decades, Dr Jenny Coetzee, explained that this study has put numbers to the very alarming levels of violence that she has been aware that sex workers experience.  

“It is vital that sex worker programmes are properly resourced so that they can help protect sex workers from violence,” said Coetzee, adding that there is a need for bold and innovative violence prevention projects to reduce the rates of violence seen across South Africa. 

She also highlighted that with the economic downturn due to Covid-19, the country is likely to see an increase in the number of people engaging in “survival-type” sex work, as well as the perpetration of violence against women.

“There has been a lot of research showing what needs to be done to help sex workers. Now we need committed resources to protect this vulnerable group of women”.

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Improving the health status for all women

Co-author of the study, Professor Rachel Jewkes, described these findings as clearly showing that FSWs experience levels of violence that are even higher than the very high levels found in informal settlements and are likely the most vulnerable women to rape and physical violence in the country.  

“It is essential that we leave no one behind in preventing gender-based violence, and female sex workers must be protected,” said Jewkes.

She said that the SAMRC, through its Gender and Health Research Unit (GHRU), continues to reiterate its vital contribution to improving the health status and quality of life of women in South Africa.

According to Jewkes, this is done through conducting high-quality scientific research and leading dialogue on violence against women and how the country can fight against the scourge of gender-based violence more effectively.