“I am a sex worker. I have blood running through my veins and human rights just like all South Africans.”
This is a cry of a sex worker who was denied medical assistance for a suspected sexually transmitted infection (STI) at a public clinic in Mpumalanga.
The illegal status of sex work allows for discrimination, social isolation and stigmatisation of sex workers. This does society no good because, for example, when sex workers’ condoms are confiscated by police, they have unprotected sex, which raises the rate of STI and HIV infections.
In spite of the stigma attached to sex work, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has launched the South African National Sex Worker HIV Plan 2016-2019, developed by the South African National Aids Council in collaboration with the departments of health, social development and justice and civil society organisations.
But, to implement the plan, the hostile legal and conservative attitudes will have to be addressed.
The plan, which acknowledges that sex workers have rights to life, dignity and health services, was informed by research done by the United States’s Centers for Disease Control and the University of California, which studied the prevalence of HIV among female sex workers in South Africa.
The study revealed a 59.6% rate, by far the highest of any community in the country and three to four times higher than among women in the general population. The figure in itself is alarming but it also means that sex workers have a good chance of transmitting HIV to their partners.
To reduce the rate of transmission, the plan’s objectives include:
l Encouraging the use of condoms, and reducing risky behaviour by creating a safe environment for sex workers and their clients; and
l Providing services through peer-led programmes to make condoms and sex education resources readily available, to encourage responsible sexual behaviour, and to provide places or “drop-in centres” throughout the country where they can meet.
Sex work is illegal in terms of the Sexual Offences Act of 2007. If the government wants sex workers to receive the services suggested by the sex worker HIV plan, it will have to legalise sex work. South Africa will fail to reduce HIV transmission rates if sex work is regarded as being immoral and is stigmatised.
Many sex workers join the industry to take care of their families or to survive. Melissa, a sex worker from Chatsworth in Durban, came to Johannesburg in search of a job. But she did not have a matric qualification and couldn’t find work. Out of desperation, she became a sex worker, charging just R100 for straight sex, and from R200 to R300 for other sex services.
If a safe environment is not created for sex workers, society cannot expect them to trust that they will be assisted to face their social and economic challenges. Decriminalising sex work will allow their rights to be restored.
It will also provide a platform for the government and the relevant organisations to assist those who have turned to the industry for survival.
Legalising sex work is not the same as legalising illicit addictive drugs. Legalising drugs opens a window for crime. In contrast, legalising sex work will encourage society to see sex workers as people who have health and psychological needs that can be addressed, which in turn will help to improve society’s health in general, especially in relation to HIV.
Legalising sex work will also eliminate the confusion that exists in the government. The department of health distributes condoms to sex workers and the South African Police Services confiscates them. If sex work is legalised, those in the government will start to speak the same language.
The Commission for Gender Equality supports the decriminalisation of sex work. One of its commissioners, Janine Hicks, argues that “it is the only viable approach to promoting and protecting the dignity and rights of sex workers”.
Society should not see the decriminalisation of sex work as an opportunity for people to cheat on their partners or as an easy way for people to escape poverty. Instead, it should be seen as an opportunity to reduce the stigma attached to sex work, which prevents sex workers from being empowered to have safe sex and receive treatment for STIs.
The decriminalisation of sex work has yielded positive results in New Zealand and in several states in Australia. Studies show that decriminalisation encouraged sex workers to protect themselves, it improved their relationships with the police, and the demand for their services remained unchanged.
It makes no sense for the government to allow conservative attitudes to prevent the decriminalisation of sex work. The continued criminalisation of sex work will drive sex workers away from the initiatives created to reduce HIV and the state will lose the battle to reduce new infections – and the general population will remain prey to it.
Relebohile Motana is an independent writer.