South Africa Moves to Decriminalise Sex Work
South African sex workers and their allies protest in favour of the decriminalisation of sex work.

South Africa is poised to become the first African country to decriminalise sex work following the publication of an amendment to the country’s criminal law for public comment.

South Africa’s Cabinet has approved the publication of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill, which proposes the decriminalising the “buying and selling of adult sexual services”.

South African Justice Minister Ronald Lamola told a media briefing this week that “sex work and related activities has been the subject of considerable debate in South Africa”.

“Sex work is driven by a complex intersection of social and economic factors in which poverty, unemployment and inequality are key drivers,” added Lamola.

South African justice minister Ronald Lamola

“Within the current South African context the debate around sex work has been complicated by high levels of unemployment, crippling poverty, burgeoning numbers of migrant and illegal foreign job seekers, high levels of sexual violence against women, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, drug and substance abuse and targeted exploitation of women engaging in sex work by third parties, authorities and buyers.”

He added that the amendment aimed to reduce gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) as there was a view that criminalisation of sex work “leaves sex workers unprotected by the law, unable to exercise their rights as citizens and open to abuse generally, not least when they approach state facilities for assistance”.

South Africa has high levels of GBVF. In October the remains of six women who had been brutally murdered were found in dustbins around a motor repair shop. A number were sex workers who had been missing since June.

“I wish we could state that these brutal murders of sex workers in Johannesburg’s inner city are unusual. They are not. The sex worker community mourns the deaths of colleagues on a too regular basis,” said Constance Mathe, coordinator of Asijiki, a coalition of sex worker rights organisations shortly after the murders were uncovered. 

She demanded that the Department of Justice provided a timeline for when it would finalise its decriminalisation of sex work Bill, which had been promised for almost two years.

Asijiki has been lobbying for the decriminalisation of sex work for over a decade, but its efforts were thwarted when a South African Law Reform Commission established to look into the matter, recommended in 2017 that the country retain a totally criminalised legal framework.

“But criminalising sex work has not stopped the selling or buying of sex, nor has it been effective,” Lamola noted.

“If anything, it has led to higher levels of violence against sex workers. In addition, criminalisation affects predominantly women, with the female sex worker usually being the one who is confronted by law enforcement, but the male client isn’t.”

Sex worker rights organisations have hailed the move, with the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) saying that it hoped it would end the “legalised violence” against its members.


Image Credits: Sonke Gender Justice.

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