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South African Leadership Makes Moves to Decriminalize Sex Work

Decades of Activism by Sex Workers Has Highlighted Dangers of Criminalization

South African women's rights groups and sex workers demonstrate outside the magistrate court in Johannesburg, South Africa, October 18, 2022. © 2022 AP Photo/Themba Hadebe

The South African government has finally moved to decriminalize sex work as part of its efforts to combat increased reports of abuse against women, including gender based violence against sex workers. The step by South Africa’s cabinet to publish and seek public comment on a bill that would end criminalization of sex work brings achievement of a decades-long goal of South African sex worker rights groups like SWEAT, Sisonke, and the Asijiki coalition into view.

Research conducted by Human Rights Watch and SWEAT in 2019 found that criminalization of sex work not only undermines core rights to privacy and bodily autonomy, but makes the work more dangerous. Police in South Africa have extorted money from, harassed, and in some cases beat or raped sex workers, who are an especially marginalized population. Under criminalization, sex workers are forced to work in darker or otherwise dangerous places to avoid arrest, making it more likely they will become victims of rape and other violence. Because they fear arrest, discrimination, or ridicule because of their work, sex workers are often reluctant to report even the most serious crimes. South African officials hope decriminalizing sex work will help reduce violence against women.

As SWEAT has noted, “Decriminalization normalizes relationships between sex workers and other state agencies. With sex workers no longer labelled as criminals, they can work much better with the police to tackle violence.”

Criminalization also perpetuates stigmatization of sex work, linked to discrimination or sometimes poor treatment by healthcare providers. Important efforts to end stigma against sex workers in HIV prevention programs are undermined by criminalization, our research found. Sex workers have described how criminalization corrodes respect from others, making them feel less worthy or like they are criminals, rather than, for instance, mothers working an often-unpleasant job to support their kids.

South African authorities should ensure this draft bill leads to South Africa fully decriminalizing both the sale and purchase of sex by consenting adults. Until then, authorities should stop arresting sex workers, punish police who abuse sex workers, and change or get rid of overly broad local laws such as loitering, which are often used to harass sex workers. Ending abusive laws and practices against these workers who are especially vulnerable to gender-based violence is long overdue.

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