We can’t be selective about what Human Rights we observe, yet we are.

As the world observes International Sex Workers’ Rights day today, with sex work still illegal in South Africa, and with almost the entire demographic of sex workers being South African youth, what role are we supposed to play in this matter as future leaders? Must we support the decriminalisation movement, or support the ban of sex work while finding other avenues to assist those involved in sex work? Or must we just ignore this, because it’s their bodies, which they are free to do whatever they wish with, and must deal with whatever consequences come with it?

Although the trade of sex is illegal in South Africa, it is a common trade in which children as young as 14 are engaged in. It is no secret that the majority of sex workers are below the age of 35 and have been trapped in the trade for years, because once they get into it, it becomes  very difficult to get out, especially if no other job can give them the same income.

Many enter the trade due to unemployment and desperation for income. They either have little or no education and their family situations forced them into the trade as it requires no experience or education; or they were introduced into it by friends who earned a lot of income from it and they desired the same income to cover expenses they wouldn’t afford otherwise.

I spoke to “Candy,” a sex worker who is only 23 years old (same age as me). Originally from Zimbabwe, she started selling her body to survive the streets of Johannesburg. “I am from Harare and came here when I was 19 to look for work. A lady I met in town introduced me to this life. She gave me a room to stay and clothes to wear. I met other ladies that were under her wing as well. We all paid her every week for the room,” said “Candy.” 

“I have been arrested several times before, but they always let us go because there is no proof that we are selling our bodies. It’s not illegal to stand on the street corner. I was raped by my step-father daily as a child. The men remind me of him, so to avoid thinking of him I started using drugs. I want to stop this life, but I do not know of any other job that can make me the same amount of money. I also need to sustain my drug addiction and pay my rent,” explains “Candy.”

In an article titled Sex Workers’ Rights are Human Rights by Policy Advisor at Amnesty International, Catherine Murphy, highlighted how it’s not surprising to learn that sex workers face discrimination, beatings, rape and harassment – sometimes on a daily basis – or that they are often denied access to basic health or housing services.  

These are basic human rights they are denied and cannot report, because their trade is illegal.

To further substantiate the claims of the emotional and physical abuse sex workers endure, in an interview by Open Society Institute, Rights Not Rescue, the sex workers interviewed opened up about what they go through on a daily basis. The interviewees spoke about how difficult it is to stand on street corners at night, how the police beat them up and they can’t report it because they take them as a joke,  and they are embarrassed about going to clinics and hospitals because they are laughed at by nurses. They want to know what their rights are, because when clients don’t pay up they can’t even take them to court. They concluded the interview by asking the government to legalise sex work or at least put in laws to protect them.

Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and Sisonke National Sex Workers Movement joined forces in 2015 to commemorate International Sex Workers’ Rights Day, on the 3rd of March, through an online campaign to commemorate the day. The campaign called for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa with the theme: “Only Rights Will Stop the Wrong – Decriminalise sex work now”.

The cry for decriminalising sex work has been a very long one that organisations such as SWEAT are still fighting for even today.

Decriminalisation, per the Sex Workers and Sex Work guide, is a policy model where no aspect of adult consensual sex work is criminalised. Consenting sex workers over the age of 18 are free to sell sex and consenting adult clients are free to buy sex, without interference or harassment from the state or police.

On a YouTube video published by Key Correspondents in 2015, a channel that reports on action on HIV, Roxy, a then 25 year old HIV transgender sex worker on the Cape Town streets, and an advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work shared why she is advocating for this decriminalisation.

When she found out that she was HIV positive at the tender age of 16, and an orphan at that time, all she could think of was committing suicide. She went into sex work in order to make a living at that tender age.

She has been receiving support from SWEAT for over 8 years and is receiving both health education and treatment, and education on how to be an advocate for sex workers’ rights. Without SWEAT, Roxy says, she would have killed herself a long time ago.

In the same video, Lesego Tlhwale, Media Advocacy officer for SWEAT, explained how even though sex work is illegal, it is the oldest profession and it is not going away anytime soon; so it only makes sense for laws to be put in place on how to regulate sex work.

It should be kept in mind that around 60% of the sex workers in South Africa are HIV positive. That’s according to Rights groups who are using the figures to try and persuade the government to decriminalise the industry. By putting in laws to protect sex workers, it will be easier to control the spread of the HIV virus as they would have access to proper health care and treatment for whatever illnesses they might contract while working.

Photo credit: Sex Workers Outreach Project

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