Organisations and government disagree on decriminalisation of sex work

Sexworkers outside Cape High Court during the trial of Zwelethu Mthethwa. Mthethwa was found guilty of beating to death 23-year-old sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment. Pic from SWEAT facebook page

The recent debate on the decriminalisation of sex work, organised by Mail and Guardian and the South African National Aids Council (SANAC), provided no solution but a screaming match between those supporting it and those against.

Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa

The recent debate on the decriminalisation of sex work, organised by Mail and Guardian and the  South African National Aids Council (SANAC), provided no solution but a screaming match between those supporting it and those against. Among the panelists, Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, John Jeffery said this is a highly emotive issue, loaded with different views, and that it must be debated openly and rationally with all sections of society.

One of his concerns is that decriminalisation will lead to an increase in human trafficking: “We’ve got to look at what is best for our country,” he said and consider the experience of other countries that are also grappling with the issue such as New Zealand, Netherlands and Germany.

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, from the Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition didn’t agree with him and  said what is left for sex workers now is to woo everyone to recognise their plight. It seems this is the norm to push lawmakers on the particular policy agenda. She said decriminalisation will help to isolate sex work from other related crimes such as human trafficking.

“Decriminalisation of sex work is a human  rights issue. At the moment the sex work industry is very  dangerous. They can’t report abuse and the harassment from the police who take bribes, confiscate their medicines and condoms. They can’t even access primary health care because their work is seen as informal and criminalised,” she said.

However, Criselda Grootboom, a self-identified survivor of prostitution and sex work told delegates she doesn’t support decriminalisation: “I lost my child in the industry. I used to be harassed by pimps and brothel owners. I want sex work to be abolished. I don’t want somebody to go through what  I went through. I wish there can be more economic options for women,” she said.

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Marlise Richter from Sonke Justice said that HIV infections can be reduced by half in the next decade if sex work is decriminalised. “Decriminalisation is by far the strongest evidence presented to the law reform commission that shows if you remove criminal law from the sex work you make it safer. It shows that sex workers can access health services and the police won’t become perpetrators of human rights violations,” she said.

Acting CEO of SANAC, Dr Connie Kganakga, said they have a sex workers plan which is supported by all the political principals. What is left is for deeper engagement and a consensus from all the stakeholders.

“I believe that one day decriminalisation will happen. What is left is to address potential challenges this might bring,” she said.

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About Ramatamo wa Matamong 14 Articles
Also known by his pen name as Ramatamo Wa Matamong, born in the Free State Province, he is an award winning community journalist in the Alexandra township who has covered numerous and extensive topical issues in the township ranging from sports, politics, arts, service delivery protests, strikes, health and economics.