Prostitution is considered a crime punishable by law in many nations of the world. However, critics believe that the decision to criminalize commercial sex exposes the grey areas surrounding the legal system.
They argue that since it is hard to state the crime in commercial sex expressly, it has exposed those caught in the act to unthinkable forms of abuse and degradation.
Over the years, there have been calls for the decriminalization of commercial sex, with activists and advocates stating that governments cannot dictate to people what to do with their bodies. Well, it appears the point has been considered by the South African Cabinet, who last weekend proposed a bill that seeks to decriminalize commercial sexual work in the country.
Like in many countries, commercial sex work is a crime in South Africa, which means that all sex work that is performed on streets or in brothels is illegal and is policed as such. This makes it particularly difficult for sex workers who operate on the streets to be safe.
Local police authorities use the advantage of the criminalization of sex work in countries like South Africa as an opportunity to carry out various human rights abuses. Apart from the challenges of being harassed and arrested by the police, there have been reports about security officials abusing suspected prostitutes.
In 2020, Sylvia Dube, a Rustenburg-based sex worker, spoke to newsmen after what she said was continued harassment from police officers. In the report, she also revealed that she had to give the police the lion's share of the little money she makes in order to avoid being arrested and thrown in a cell, where she says she would be treated "like nothing".
"They don't even treat you like you exist while you're in the cells. Because they know that your job is not yet decriminalised in South Africa." After one of her run-ins with the police, she says she took home just R20, down from R300, to her four children.
It appears this may be a thing of the past in South Africa soon after the country's cabinet made an amendment to the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) and passed a bill for the criminalization of sex workers.
According to the report, Cabinet approved publishing this Bill for public comments. It repeals the Sexual Offences Act (previously Immorality Act), 1957 (Act 23 of 1957). It also repeals Section 11 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offenses and Related Matters) Amendment Act, 2007 (Act 32 of 2007) to decriminalize the sale and purchase of adult sexual services.
The proposals of this Bill respond to the list of interventions proposed in Pillar 3 (Protection, Safety, and Justice) of the National Strategic Plan on GBVF, which enjoins the criminal justice system to provide protection, safety, and justice for survivors of GBVF, and to effectively hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. Once passed into law, it will, amongst others, protect sex workers against abuse and exploitation.
Responding to the decision of South Africa's Cabinet to propose a Bill that will repeal the criminalization of sex work, UNAIDS Country Director Eva Kiwango said:
"The evidence is clear: Criminalisation has been proven to have increased the risks faced by South Africa's sex workers, hurt their health and safety, and obstructed South Africa's HIV response.
In a statement, UNAIDS has welcomed South Africa's Cabinet's proposal to repeal criminalization and to protect sex workers against abuse and exploitation.
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Photo Credit: Members of the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) demand decriminalisation of sex work. Picture: Sweat