sex worker summit

Sex worker activists plan to resubmit the sex work decriminalisation bill by March 2024. Photo: SWEAT/ Facebook

Is sex work in SA a step closer to being legalised?

Sex worker activists have held a landmark summit, rejuvenating efforts towards decriminalising sex work in South Africa.

sex worker summit

Sex worker activists plan to resubmit the sex work decriminalisation bill by March 2024. Photo: SWEAT/ Facebook

Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), a sex workers advocacy organisation, has held its first sex workers decriminalisation summit. The-two day meeting in Cape Town this week brought together sex workers, their allies, labour and government.

The event also focussed on getting youth involved with sex worker advocacy.

SWEAT plans to resubmit the sex work decriminalisation bill to Parliament by March 2024, before the elections. Sex work in South Africa was on the verge of being decriminalised, but earlier this year a draft bill that was set for Parliament to vote on, was delayed.

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Sex worker industry must be regulated, says government

Constance Mathe, a sex worker and national coordinator of the Asijiki Coalition, said they have been fighting for decriminalisation for over 20 years. She said the draft for the bill started eight years ago, with the final submission being handed over to the Department of Justice in March 2022.

In May, the Department of Justice delayed the bill, with Deputy Minister of Justice John Jeffery quoted as saying the bill “may not pass constitutional muster if it does not also provide for the regulation of sex work”.

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Mathe said sex workers are “slaughtered like chickens”, which is something decriminalisation can change. She lamented the bill’s delay, saying sex work is seen as a moral issue when it is, in fact, “a human rights issue”.

The bill, if passed, will achieve three things:

(1) The removal of criminal charges against sex workers
(2) That the buying and selling of sex will no longer be illegal
(3) All laws that criminalise sex work will be repealed.

Chrispin Phiri, a spokesperson for the justice department, confirmed the bill is being revised: “The Department is committed to prioritising the decriminalisation of sex work to safeguard the human rights of sex workers and is actively working to ensure that the Bill is processed as efficiently as possible.”

COSATU says sex workers must unionise

Jamela Mhlarhi, the national chairperson of the COSATU Young Workers, attended the summit and reiterated COSATU’s support for the decriminalisation bill. COSATU has also tabled resolutions on sex work with the Department of Labour.

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“We are against any form of discrimination in terms of any work,” Mhlari said. She added that her organisation has been working with Sisonke, a movement of sex workers, for a long time and has assisted them in mobilising workers under the COSATU umbrella.

“We want all sex workers to be united,” she said. “If you aren’t organised, you are vulnerable”.

The summit held various sessions addressing sex worker concerns, including discussions on decriminalisation and youth activism. Notably, there was an emphasis on combating stigma through social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok to help normalise sex work.

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Campaigns advocating for the rights of sex workers, including addressing HIV prevention services and dismantling structural barriers, took centre stage during the conference. An online session also provided insights from activists in Kenya, Brazil and New Zealand.

Josephine Achieng, Deputy Director of Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support for Sex Workers (BHESP) in Kenya, congratulated South Africa on the progress they have made. Sex work is still criminalised in Kenya, and she said the trade would be much safer if it wasn’t illegal.

“Criminalisation does not stop sex work. It does not stop me from going to the streets,” she said.