By Khuthala Nandipha, Daily Dispatch
The African National Congress Women’s League is officially backing calls for sex work to be legalised in South Africa.
The motion will be discussed at the ANC’s policy conference in June and national conference in Mangaung in December where the league hopes for a resolution to be passed. This follows the recent release of the league’s gender policy discussion document, which highlights the right for women to be sex workers without fear of the law and social stigma.
“We want a total decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa. The law treats prostitutes as criminals but does not treat their male clients with the same heavy-handedness.
“We want the ANC to support a position that will embrace the dignity of women,” said Hlengiwe Mkhize, ANCWL treasurer.
The move received support from former deputy minister of health, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge.
Currently the executive director of Embrace Dignity, an NGO addressing trafficking and sexual exploitation, Madlala-Routledge wrote in a recent article that while she doubted the ANC would call for total decriminalisation, there was merit in calling for the decriminalisation of selling, and not the buying, of sex.
“This position takes into account the underlying causes that drive women, mainly poor women, into prostitution …” she wrote.
Gender activists argue that criminalisation of sex work makes it difficult for sex workers to leave the industry because many have a criminal record which makes employers reluctant to give them work.
One 32-year-old East Londoner who became a sex worker 12 years ago, said women did not turn to sex work because they wanted to be aroused, but rather due to financial difficulties. The woman, who only has a Grade 11 education, is a divorcee and single mother to two children.
“All I have ever wanted was to go to school and become a social worker,” she said.
She is one of many women who turn to prostitution to make ends meet. Recent unemployment statistics show official unemployment among women stands at 28%. The woman said she made up to R1000 on a regular night and during the festive season or other holiday periods up to R3000.
She was married at 16 and moved to East London from the Transkei with her husband. But after three years of abuse and entrapment, she divorced him and got custody of her child who was just 11 months old.
She moved in with a friend. She had no idea that her friend was a sex worker until she followed her one night. A driver approached her and she learnt that in less than an hour she could make up to R150.
“The thought that by morning I could afford nappies, formula and vegetables motivated me throughout the gruesome process,” she said. “Of all the piece jobs I have done in-between prostitution , none have ever given me this much income.”
She has just received her Computer Literacy certificate and is currently studying for a certificate in Childhood Development. She plans to leave sex work soon and open a crèche in a rural area with the help of government funding and savings.
Considered one of the oldest professions in the world, prostitution was declared illegal in South Africa in 1957, but gender rights advocates maintain that if a person wants to buy or sell sex, this should be their choice.
In 2009, the Democratic Alliance’s Jack Bloom, spokesperson for DA Gauteng Health had said: “Decriminalising of sex work would be a grave mistake that would send the wrong signal to communities.”
However, the party has changed its tune. According to Mmusi Maimane, DA’s national spokesperson, the Alliance’s main concern is for every human being’s constitutional rights to be protected.
“Often prostitution is met with a lot of police brutality, so whatever needs to be done to end this violation, the DA is behind it.”
However, he added that the matter of decriminalisation should be resolved through public participation and in no other way. “People need to decide what kind of society they want to live in.”
Ntokozo Yingwana, advocacy officer for Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) said sex work was difficult, dangerous and not an easy decision to make. “So it’s not about making quick money, it’s about making a hard choice,” said Yingwana.
[This news article was sourced from the Daily Dispatch, 21 April 2012 edition. For a downloadable PDF version of this article, see below.]