/ 27 December 2022

Legalising sex work is not a moral issue, it’s a human rights issue

Sex workers in South Africa want their profession decriminalised
Sex workers in South Africa want their profession decriminalised

The case against Sifiso Mkhwanazi for the murder of a woman believed to be a sex worker has been postponed to February 2023 because of the delay in DNA testing. 

Mkhwanazi has only been charged with the murder of one woman although six bodies were found at his father’s workshop in Johannesburg in October. Police have not processed the DNA to identify the missing women. 

This case reflects the failures, attitudes and harms the police and government have committed concerning the dignity and safety of sex workers. But it seems there may be light at the end of this dark tunnel. 

A new bill that seeks to decriminalise sex work is now open for public comment. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill of 2022 repeals the Sexual Offences Act (previously Immorality Act), 1957 (Act No. 23 of 1957). 

The original Act included the prohibition of sexual intercourse between white and black people.

In a media statement on 9 December, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola states what has long held true: “Criminalising sex work has not stopped the selling or buying of sex, nor has it been effective. If anything, it has led to higher levels of violence against sex workers.” 

The bill does not regulate sex work but only decriminalises it, meaning that sex workers will be entitled to protection from law enforcement. 

It would also mean “better access to healthcare and reproductive health services … as well as compliance with health and safety and labour legislation. It would also afford better protection for sex workers, better working conditions and less discrimination and stigma,” Lamola said. 

If you’re still on the fence, here are some things to consider. 

If sex work remains a criminal activity, sex workers will have to continue working  in unsafe, abusive and dangerous conditions. Most sex workers are women of colour and are providing the main source of income for their children and other dependents. 

We cannot address gender-based violence without addressing the needs of sex workers because they are obvious targets. 

In countries where sex work has been legalised, regulation has led to safer work environments, the outlawing of public sex work, exploitation (pimping), regular health checks and the registration of sex workers. 

Although there is no evidence that legalising sex work decreases incidences of sex traffickin), it definitely exposes cases of it and decreases the demand when legal sex workers are readily available. It would also make it easier to identify cases where sex trafficking and child sex work is happening if underground exploitation and unregistered brothels are outlawed. 

Anyone inside an unregistered brothel or who is exploiting workers would be assumed to be doing it illegally, by force and against the will of the workers involved.  

The fact is, whether their work is legal or not, sex workers will still exist. The demand for them will always be there. We cannot afford to further disadvantage or endanger their lives. 

A copy of the Bill is available at www.justice.gov.za

Public comments on the Bill must be submitted to the Chief Directorate: Legislative Development on or before 31 January 2023. The postal address is: The Director-General: Justice and Constitutional Development, Private Bag X 81, Pretoria 0001, marked for the attention of Tsietsi Sebelemetja or email: Bills1@gavicejustice-gov-za

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.