Advocating for Sex Workers’ Rights

political party Gender equality prostitution
Wednesday, 17 March, 2010 - 12:13

With the 2010 FIFA World Cup less than 100 days away, sex workers across South Africa fear being arrested during the event, as well as an increase in violence, not only from gangsters, but police as well. Commemorating International Sex Workers’ Rights Day on 3 March in Cape Town, efforts aimed at advocating for the decriminalisation of sex workers received much attention, with the main focus on empowering sex workers in knowing their rights and what they should do when their rights are violated, especially at the time of arrest

On 3 March 2001, a gathering organised by Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a Calcutta-based group consisting of over 50 000 sex workers and members of their communities, was held in India. The result of this gathering subsequently led to sex worker groups across the world celebrating 3 March as International Sex Workers' Rights Day.

The Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT)1 and Sisonke2 celebrated this day not only with sex workers but also with those who support the rights of sex workers. The aim of the day was for sex workers to come together and share their positive and negative experiences of their work, as well as building solidarity with other movements.

All aspects of sex work are criminalised in South Africa. The criminalisation of the industry increases the vulnerability of sex workers to violence and exploitation, by forcing sex workers further underground, hindering access to health and legal services and increasing the stigma attached to the work. In a qualitative research project done by SWEAT (2005), the majority of the sex workers interviewed expressed a need for non-judgemental spaces where they could talk. The criminalised status of sex work results in the marginalisation and stigmatisation of sex workers. Creating safe spaces is not only therapeutic but also creates opportunities for learning.

Sex workers have reported to SWEAT, and studies have documented the mistreatment and abuse of sex workers when they are arrested. “I was beaten and pepper sprayed,” reported one sex worker. 3Stacey-Leigh Manoek, an attorney from the Women’s Legal Centre, made a presentation on the rights of sex workers when they are arrested at the International Sex Worker Rights Day hosted by SWEAT. The aim of her presentation was to empower sex workers to know their rights and what they should do when their rights are violated, especially at the time of arrest. Many sex workers attending this event were not aware that the use of force is only required if a person is resisting arrest and that force should be minimal. Sex workers have mentioned excessive use of force by officers like being beaten and pepper sprayed when they were already in the police vans.

The International Sex Worker Rights Day is commemorated by sex workers across the world. Sex workers in Cape Town learnt about the struggles of sex workers from India, Cambodia, Korea, Europe, Kenya, Australia, United States of America and Brazil. The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) sent a letter of support and solidarity to the event in Cape Town. New Zealand is currently the only country where sex work is decriminalised. In the letter, NZPC mentioned some of the positive things that have emerged from this new law.

“Under the Health and Safety clauses of our law, sex workers, clients and operators can be fined for not using condoms for all penetrative sexual activities. The fine is larger for the operator who is expected to promote safer sex at the brothel and have information that the client can see. A client ripped off his condom and ejaculated inside her. She was brave enough to report him to the police who tracked him down and he was sent to court, found guilty and his name was published in the newspaper. We were proud to support the worker through this process”4.

Sex workers from Cape Town also sent the NZPC a letter sharing their experiences of working under a criminalised system and some of the challenges that they face.

“In South Africa HIV/AIDS is a big thing and it is hurting many people including those in this industry. The fact that your laws make it illegal for clients to ask for unprotected sex is something that we would like to have. The reality that we are faced with daily is clients offering us more money for unprotected sex, with some of our peers falling for this, which has dire consequences for them”5.

With the FIFA World Cup less than 100 days away, sex workers in South Africa are very concerned about their ability to work and earn a living during that time frame. At a recent consultation6 meeting on HIV and AIDS, “Sex Work and the 2010 Soccer World Cup”, sex workers raised the following concerns:

  • Being arrested for the World Cup period and being kept in jail;
  • More gangsters on the streets and being mugged and an increase in violence.

Some of their dreams for the World Cup are:

  • More clients, more money, more foreign currency and making connections for future work;
  • If sex work conditions improve for the World Cup then sex work conditions will be better for the future;
  • The World Cup should benefit all and not just some.

The most rational approach to sex work in South Africa would be to decriminalise the industry. This approach would protect tourists and sex workers, while freeing up police resources to deal with other more pressing issues such as violence, hooliganism, robbery and other genuine and significant crimes. Unfortunately, the South African law reform process has been very slow and it is most unlikely that the out-dated laws on sex work will change before the World Cup starts. In the absence of decriminalisation, sex workers and civil society groups have called for a moratorium on sex worker harassment and arrests by police. This strategy should, they say, be implemented in conjunction with public health messages and campaigns.

  • 1. The Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) is a non-profit organisation started in 1994 to promote the health and human rights of sex workers.
  • 2. A South African sex worker led movement, which was started in 2003.
  • 3. Male sex worker, December 2009.
  • 4. Anna a sex worker from New Zealand in letter to sex workers in Cape Town.
  • 5. Cape Town Peer educators, segment to letter to NZPC 2010.
  • 6. SWEAT and The South African National AIDS Council (SANAC) held a joint consultation in November 2009 on HIV/AIDS, sex work and the 2010 soccer World Cup. The meeting was attended by sex worker organisations, human rights advocates, public health researchers, government and the media.

- Dianne Massawe is Research and Knowledge Management Officer at Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce.

Related organisation(s): 
Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce

NGO Services

NGO Services

NGO Events