Sex workers wearing masks lead a march to mark International Sex Workers Rights Day in Johannesburg March 3, 2011

© 2011 Reuters

Sex work, illegal in South Africa, has been a political hot potato here for decades. South Africa’s Law Review Commission late last year recommended that sex work remain fully criminalized, i.e. a criminal offense to both sell and purchase sex. Now, eyes are on the justice ministry to see whether it will follow this recommendation or whether a radically new approach and law are needed.

On June 21, a panel discussion on sex work – “Is it work, and is it a choice?” – convened by the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office and the Hanns Seidel Foundation, will take place in Cape Town. The lineup is to include South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Justice and Correctional Services John Jeffery; former UN Human Rights Commissioner and judge Navi Pillay,  a global luminary of women’s rights; and long-time warrior for South African sex worker rights, Kholi Buthelezi.

Sex work is a contentious issue everywhere, tearing the global women’s rights movement in two. One side believes sex work – they prefer the term “prostitution” – is inherently abusive and should be eradicated through criminalizing the purchase of sex. At the panel, the group Equality Now shares this view. The other side believes sex work as a whole should be decriminalized to better enable sex workers to avail of protection of the law from beatings, harassment, rape, and other abuse (a position held by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International). At the panel, South African sex worker organizations Sisonke and SWEAT hold this view.

It’s time for change, and active sex workers – not just panels – should be part of it. We interviewed more than 40 South African sex workers this month. Criminalization is clearly not the answer. The arrests, usually for no more than standing in a so-called “hot spot,” and police harassment should end. These practices drive sex workers to work in dangerous places and stop them from reporting violence to police.

Most sex workers we interviewed said they needed full decriminalization. “Of course, I would like another job from the government, this is hard,” a sex worker in Limpopo province told me. “But what I need from the government is a safe place where I can work and without being afraid of getting arrested.” 

Public discussion like this panel is crucial. But more crucial is the direct involvement of sex workers themselves who need to be consulted and whose needs, realities, and perspectives should be taken fully on board. Such an informed discussion should lead to decriminalization of sex work.