A video, posted to Facebook by the Office of the Mayor of Juba City Council, shows a group of male officials and armed police officers harassing and taunting a female sex worker. “Are you a sex seller, don’t you know you are spoiling this country…Before we take you for [medical] examination, are you infected?” one man said.
The woman, visibly afraid, answers their questions.
The video, which is clearly intended to humiliate and stigmatize its target, demonstrates yet again how criminalization of sex work in South Sudan exposes workers to abuse and exploitation and the discrimination faced by people living with HIV/AIDs.
In South Sudan, sex work, along with running or owning a brothel, living off the earnings of “prostitution,” and enticing a woman into “prostitution” are criminalized. And yet the trade, which includes hundreds of foreign and local women, has continued to grow.
Human Rights Watch’s research in numerous countries, including South Africa and Tanzania, has shown that criminalization leaves sex workers extra vulnerable to violence, including rape, assault, and murder. Their attackers see sex workers as easy targets, because they are stigmatized and unlikely to receive help from the police.
The video posted by South Sudanese officials also announced that 40 other people, mainly women accused of witchcraft or sex work, had been arrested. Three of these women reported being subjected to forced HIV tests at Juba central prison. Others were issued sentences of 6 months or fines of 50,000 South Sudanese pounds (400USD) and released.
Such actions not only violate the rights to privacy, equality, and freedom from discrimination, but also fuel stigmatization and ignorance of HIV/AIDS. Many in South Sudan view HIV as a “foreign disease” among town dwellers, “immoral” people, and foreigners.
The virus disproportionately affects women, in 2018, approximately 55.6 percent of adults living with HIV/AIDS in South Sudan were women. A lack of access to health information, power disparities in sexual relationships and marriages, financial reliance on male partners, and traditional patriarchy facilitating gender inequality feeds this trend.
In addition, only 18 percent of people living with HIV are accessing life-saving treatment.
The government has no business policing sex among consenting adults. It should fully decriminalize sex work and ensure that sex workers do not face discrimination in law or practice. It should also enhance HIV/AIDs education, fight stigma, and enhance health care for people living with HIV.