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Wednesday, 16 January 2013 09:29

Sex workers' vulnerability is our vulnerability

By Marlise Richter, of the African Centre for Migration & Society (Wits University)


A criminal justice system under which sex workers are not protected from abuse is unlikely to uphold any human rights. While the Law Commission continues its decade-long hemming and hawing over its recommendations to amend legislation, South Africa’s streets will remain places of rape, murder, bribery and brutality.


Just less than a month ago, a small group of sex workers and sex worker allies and activists congregated in Hillbrow, Cape Town and elsewhere to remember their colleagues who were killed or harmed in 2012. Indeed, 17 December is “International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers”. You might not have known this. Perhaps the more prominent Day of Reconciliation on the 16th was more on your mind at that time, or you decided to take a well-deserved holiday from news, policy conferences, strikes, symbolic public holidays and speeches, and just revel in the festive spirit.


These two days in December were not synchronised by design, but yet both point to the need to contemplate cruelty, violence and intolerance and how we can free our societies from it. The former was instituted in 2003 by USA-based Annie Sprinkle, a former sex worker who now holds a PhD (evidence that the two are not mutually exclusive), to commemorate the victims of the Green River Killer in Seattle, Washington. On 18 December 2003, Gary Ridgeway was convicted of 48 murders. He confessed to 71, but he also noted that he had killed so many that he had lost count.


“I picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught,” said Ridgeway, who continued on his devastating trail of murder for more than 20 years, even though several people knew that he was responsible. Many in the sex work community in Seattle were too scared to speak out. Those who did, were not believed.


This pattern of preying on sex workers by serial killers is discernible elsewhere. There are Sheen Changing and Sheen Changing from China (11 sex workers), Hiroaki Hidaka from Japan (four) and, of course, London’s Jack the Ripper (number of victims unknown). South Africa’s Stewart Wilkes (AKA “Bowtie Boer”) was convicted in 1998 of seven murders, some of them sex workers, in Port Elizabeth. Several of these killers were not brought to book for years.


It would seem that sex worker murders and abuse do not count for much, perhaps particularly so in bloody South Africa. Violence and crime permeate our consciousness. Public responses to bloodshed, aggression and brutality often depend on whether a family member, friend, acquaintance or neighbour was attacked. Chances are that you are not related to any of the sex workers killed or maimed by serial killers, vicious clients or ruthless police. Why should you care? In fact, with the limited capacity for caring each of us has, can you afford to care?


Let’s move beyond personal responses, and focus on the system that could have produced these atrocities, and our limited capacity to respond to it.


Sex work in South Africa is a crime. Remnants of the old Immorality Act are still alive and kicking in 2012 in the form of S 20(1A)(a) of the Sexual Offences Act. This provision makes you a criminal for having sex “for reward”.


What is reward? The vagueness of the definition should trouble you, since this dinosaur law does not provide guidance on what this entails. Fortunately, the Department of Justice has recognised that we are no longer living in the 1950s. It charged the South African Law Reform Commission with the responsibility of coming up with recommendations on how South Africa should approach the emotive issue of sexual morality and the role of the state. The Law Commission has hemmed and hawed for more than a decade and has not yet given us any concrete recommendations. It does not help that the Law Commission is currently without commissioners because Minister of Justice Jeff Redebe has overlooked his duty to reappoint them. This has been the case since the beginning of 2012, leaving law reform processes in limbo despite promises from the acting deputy chief state law adviser that these appointments are “imminent”.


While we wait for the Law Commission to re-start, consider this: The world’s foremost female philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, recently explained in the New York Times that “Keeping prostitution illegal only increases the threats of violence and sickness and abuse that women face because illegality prevents adequate supervision, encourages the control of pimps and discourages health checks.”


When sex work is a crime, the law gives sex workers little protection. Sex workers are beaten, raped, bribed and pepper-sprayed by lawless members of the police force. This happens to them while on the streets, while walking to shops or sleeping (alone) in their homes. Sex workers are often ridiculed at the police station front office when they try to report rape, theft or other crimes. In Rustenburg in September last year, 14 sex workers found working on the street, were forced into a closed police van, pepper-sprayed and left overnight. Legato battled to breathe throughout the ordeal, and everyone in the van shouted and begged the police to open the van for air or to assist her. Their pleas fell on deaf ears. Legato died at dawn. One of her colleagues notes in an affidavit how she closed Legato’s eyes after she had stopped breathing. Yet, despite the danger to themselves, Legato’s colleagues are bravely seeking justice for what had happened. The Women’s Legal Centre and Lethabong Legal Advice Centre brought a complaint on behalf of the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) and the sex workers involved, to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate. Their complaint and follow-ups have not yet been successful.


The vulnerability of sex workers is also our vulnerability. A criminal justice system that brutalises sex workers is one that is likely to do the same to others. An Independent Police Investigative Directorate that is reluctant to act on acts of inhumanity by members of the police, is one that is likely to disregard other complaints too. A society that ignores cruelty against its most vulnerable members, will continue its heartlessness irrespective of how many Days of Reconciliation are observed.


What is also clear is that outdated laws, old-school moralism about a “good and virtuous” woman and careless mindsets all play lethally into a situation where brutal killings and police malice barely raise a response from us, the public, or those who oversee the police.


Or worse: where some may quietly think “they got what they deserved”.


And the law? The law contributes to our own callousness and disregard. This is because it makes criminals of women, men and transgender people seeking to sell sexual services. One important step is to change the laws that criminalise sex work, and to respect sex workers and how they make a living.


Abolishing all criminal penalties for sex work would challenge the stigma that surrounds sex workers. It would help secure theier human rights and dignity, and make for safer work and living conditions for them. And for us.


While law reform is no panacea for age-old “social problems”, it is a vital first step.


Making sex workers criminals is counterproductive, irrational and cruel. Every day that the police spend resources on “raiding”, “clamping down on” or harassing sex workers, is one more day that makes others more vulnerable, and is one more day during which fewer resources can be used to round up real criminals, and bring them to justice.


[This news article was sourced from the Daily Maverick: 'Sex workers' vulnerability is our vulnerability']

Published in News
Friday, 23 November 2012 09:48

Sex in the shadows of Marikana

By Kwanele Sosibo, Mail&Guardian

On Klopper Street, near the Rustenburg Magistrate's Court, sex workers ply a brisk trade by night. The women, seemingly oblivious to the prying eyes of strangers, huddle together on the pavement and are casually approached by men.

After a brief negotiation, they sidle into the disused buildings flanking parking lots at both ends of the block. Sometimes, parked trucks obscure their proceedings, otherwise the abandoned buildings provide the requisite privacy.

The women working this nondescript stretch of urban decay are far from a carefree bunch. On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, in particular, the sex workers and their clients are more circumspect about their liaisons because the police, working with the Greater Rustenburg Citizens' Forum for Change and the municipality's public safety department, are known to swoop on areas where they ply their trade.

The swoops, witnessed by the Mail & Guardian, are meant to humiliate both client and sex worker: they are caught literally with their pants down as they are confronted by a convoy of marked police vehicles, pepper-sprayed, assaulted and searched before being shoved into a vehicle.

In at least one case, the woman concerned never returned. At least three sex workers interviewed independently stated that one of their colleagues had died in police custody on the morning of September 22 after they were rounded up in Rustenburg's central business district the night before.

The women say they were put in the back of a police vehicle, pepper-sprayed and left in the vehicle for the night after it was parked at the police station.

When they were later "discovered" by the police, they were escorted off the premises before the ambulance they had called for a colleague arrived. Kim, who claimed she was detained in the police "gumba gumba" on the night with Lerato, the missing woman, said: "I know a dead person when I see one. She was foaming at the mouth."

Heaving sounds

Another, Maria, said she closed Lerato's eyes after her corpse went cold.

Nadine, another witness, said Lerato made heaving sounds after they were pepper-sprayed while inside the van and her breathing never returned to normal. Then she became quiet.

"This thing is affecting us. We can't come to the street and get beaten up," Kim said. "The way they beat us when they arrest us, we get wounds, not swellings."

When six of the women took the case to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate a few days later, they were told that only one woman could make a statement, but nothing has come of the report.

Sisonke, a peer educator group, and the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) have laid a complaint with the police ministry over the directorate's failure to investigate the matter.

But the directorate said none of the woman's colleagues could provide details of her identity.

"The Independent Police Investigative Directorate has been unresponsive since the stakeholder meeting [on November 2], returning neither emails nor calls," said Jenna Praschma, Sweat's advocacy consultant. "In their last communication with me, they stated that they were unable to even open a docket due to lack of evidence, despite having denied key witnesses the opportunity to give statements [by saying it could only take one statement].

"They have been reluctant to conduct even preliminary investigations into the allegations."

Combating crime

The Greater Rustenburg Citizens' Forum for Change prides itself on "combating crime". The organisation, which works with the police, organises community policing forums (CPFs) to further its aims.

A self-congratulatory advertorial in the Platinum Weekly, a local newspaper, reads: "Great successes have been achieved in sector one, crime is down, drug lords are moving out … much less prostitutes on the street. The current trend we are seeing is that the criminals are moving out of sector one and are starting to target the other sectors because there are no CPF structures in place. This is going to get worse if these CPFs does [sic] not start as soon as possible."

Sector one comprises part of the CBD and East End, two areas in which prostitution thrives. Rustenburg North, which falls under the Thlabane policing sector, is another thriving hot spot.

Although the forum may spin its project as an anti-crime initiative, Kim said other agendas came into play because "some of these police want money and free things. If they catch you, they beat you and drop you in places that you don't know.

"If they take you to the police station, they make you shower with your clothes on, or clean the police station or the police cars. They're fucked up."

Another woman claimed she was coming out of a tavern when police stopped her and beat her with a stick. "If they find money on you, they take it. We can't do business now because of the cops."

Kim, a Zimbabwean, said the constant harassment had restricted business and forced sex-work prices down. "A night could be very busy. We'd charge about R100 a round but now we're down to R60. Before we could charge a white guy R250 for a fuck and a blow, but these days they are also scared."

Frustrated sex workers

Anecdotes such as these are interpreted as success by Johan de Klerk, chairperson of the citizens' forum. He said, gleefully, that frustrated sex workers were fleeing to neighbouring towns such as Vryburg, Mafikeng, Potchefstroom and Krugersdorp. "There's no business for them here any more and the only way to sort it out is for people to move."

During a conversation in a sub­urban coffee shop close to where prostitutes ply their trade at night, the grey-haired IT entrepreneur argued his case against the legalisation of prostitution ("where are they going to build the brothel, next to someone's house?"), stated that the women were all helpless victims at the mercy of drug-dealing pimps and recounted how, with the help of the taxi association, the forum had shut down buildings in which illegal immigrants were dealing in drugs.

That women could be driven to the streets by poverty seemed an alien concept to him.

"Why would you want to sell your body?" he asked, his arms flailing. "The Nigerians get them on drugs and then they owe too much and can't get out of it any more."

De Klerk's statement is only partially true; the pimps operate predominantly in the eastern and northern parts of town.

Hostile relationship

During the conversation, De Klerk acknowledged that the result of the forum's and the sector one police's work could be to shift the problem to another location, becoming a tiring game of cat and mouse.

"I've got kids and grandkids that must live in this town. We can't let criminals take it over."

Rustenburg police Captain Jackie Nkoana, a supporter of the forum, refused to answer questions about the issues.

The police did not attend a meeting of those involved in the matter at the Rustenburg hospice in November, which suggests that the hostile relationship will continue.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate had not responded to requests for comment at the time of going to press.

[This news article was sourced from the Mail&Guardian Online: 'Sex in the shadows of Marikana']

Published in News
Wednesday, 12 September 2012 08:07

Sex workers train police

More than 60 police officers took part in a human rights training session with sex workers and advocacy organisations in Cape Town yesterday.

Police officers from Bellville, Parow and Goodwood police stations took part in the three-hour workshop, together with the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), Sisonke - the only national movement of sex workers, Triangle Project, Gender Dynamix and the Womens Legal Centre (WLC).

This training follows a visit by Deputy Minister of Police Makhotso Maggie Sotyu to SWEAT last month where she heard first-hand from sex workers the harassment and abuse they experience in the hands of police.

The objective of this three-hour training was to sensitise police on the vulnerability of transgender people, and to inform members on the legal rights of sex workers. It is the first in a series of trainings working with local police stations where complaints against some of the stations’ officers have been reported by sex workers to SWEAT and WLC. The training was designed to encourage participation and involved much discussion.

In a recent study conducted by the WLC: ‘Stop Harassing Us! Tackle Real Crime! A report on Human Rights Violations By Police Against Sex Workers In South Africa’, 70% of the 308 sex workers interviewed had experienced some form of abuse by police.

Some of the concerns raised by the police officers included drug dealing by pimps, pressure to respond to complaints from residents where sex workers operate, and the frustration of trying to enforce an inapplicable law. The Director of SWEAT, Sally-Jean Shackleton, encouraged members to use the 24-hour toll-free sex worker Help Line (0800 60 60 60) if they felt someone needed assistance.

"The government has left this for so long. It’s just too big for us. It’s like during apartheid. During that time we had to run around arresting everyone without a card [dom pass]. As soon as the government sorts itself out we will then know what to do”, said a female police officer at this training.

Colonel Cloete, an attorney of the Provincial Commissioners Office, reminded the police officers what they can and cannot do when arresting sex workers. “Just treat everyone with dignity, and there will be no problems", Cloete told the police officers.

"Although there are still many issues regarding searching procedures, and gender segregated facilities to protect transgender people from being sexually assaulted by fellow inmates that remain unresolved, we are optimistic about this initiative, and are committed to working with SAPS and other stakeholders to deal with these challenges", said Sibusiso Kheswa of Gender Dynamix.

“In order to address this human rights crisis and the human rights violations that sex workers experience, South Africa should decriminalise the selling and buying of sex and the system should be reformed to bring the treatment of sex workers in line with our constitutional and international obligations to reduce this type of abuse”, said WLC human rights' lawyer Stacey-Leigh Manoek.

Sharon Cox Ludwig of Triangle Project closed the training by urging the police officers to treat every sex worker they come across as a human being. “No matter what your religion is, or what the law says, just remember that this person in front of me is a human being”.

“For us this is a first step towards better relations with the police, and a good opportunity for us to hear what their issues are, and for them to hear what are our concerns. So we can start working together, because at the end the day we are both tasked with protecting human rights”, said Sisonke National Coordinator Kholi Buthelezi.

Published in SWEAT Press Releases

By Melissa Turley, of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Sex workers gathered at a meeting in Cape Town say it isn’t the clients they service they are most scared of – it’s the police.

Angie de Bruin, a former sex worker turned paralegal and sex worker rights activist, says South African police took her condoms while she was working just because they felt they had the power to do so. She says police and hospital workers taunted and publicly humiliated her in an attempt to remind her that to them she is nothing but a prostitute.

“Police are taking advantage of the sex workers. They do everything in their power to get rid of sex work. They rape sex workers,” de Bruin said. “It’s horrible. Not terrible, it’s horrible.”

The Sex Worker Education & Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), Sisonke (a self-described "movement of sex workers, by sex workers"), and the Women’s Legal Centre recently released a study based on interviews with 308 sex workers. “Stop Harassing Us: Tackle Real Crime” finds that approximately 70 percent of sex workers have been abused by police. The main types of abuse include assault, harassment, arbitrary arrest, violation of procedures and standing orders, inhumane conditions of detention, unlawful profiling, exploitation, bribery and denial of access to justice.

De Bruin explains that when police arrest a sex worker they will sometimes ask for sexual favors in exchange for the sex worker’s release. Sex workers who bring a legal case against police who have abused them have also been targeted and beaten up in retaliation.

“I knew one case where the police even kicked the girl in the stomach and she was supposed to get married. She had to postpone the marriage and they came afterwards and made fun of her,” de Bruin said.

A female sex worker interviewed for the study says, “A police officer unzipped his pants and put a condom on...He put me on the floor. The police officer raped me, then the second one, after that the third one did it again. I was crying after the three left without saying anything. Then the first one appeared again...He let me out by the back gate without my property. I was so scared my family would find out.”

Another female sex worker adds that after being held all night by police, driven around and pepper-sprayed, she went to the police station to report the abuse.

“I told them I want to lay a charge against a police officer who keeps harassing me. And they laughed at me and said that is his job.”

De Bruin says the high rate of unemployment in South Africa often leads people to sex work as a means to survive – a way to support themselves and their children. Sex work is illegal in South Africa but organizations like SWEAT are working to decriminalize it.

“We try and bring a general awareness to people that sex workers are still human regardless of their profession and still deserve to enjoy the same human rights that we all enjoy,” Ntokozo Sibahle Yingwana, an advocacy officer at SWEAT said.

Yingwana explains that decriminalizing sex work would allow sex workers to realize their human rights given to them under the constitution, but adds that while working on law reform, they must simultaneously fight to reform the ingrained and negative opinions many South Africans have of sex workers.

“Our greatest challenge really is changing people’s mindsets at the lowest level possible because we realize that it’s only from the community and the society that our lawmakers will take [our] word on what laws to change,” Yingwana said.

The “Stop Harassing Us: Tackle Real Crime” study also finds that sex workers are often abused by police as a direct result of their criminal status which increases their vulnerability to violence and inability to seek justice.

“The current legal framework forces sex workers to the margins of South African society, where they are easy targets for abuse at the hands of police and clients. The only remedy is to change the way in which the sex work industry in South Africa is viewed under the law and by the institutions responsible for its administration,” the study states.

The idea of decriminalization is not new. During the World Cup of 2010, it was seriously considered in an effort to accommodate the influx of soccer tourists, but was never passed.

In August 2012, while speaking at the National Sex Work Symposium in Johannesburg, Deputy Minister of Police Maggie Sotyu called for sex work to be decriminalized “so it can be professionalized and police brutality against sex workers can be eradicated.” This vocal support is a big step forward as current decriminalization legislation is stagnant.

The laws regarding sex work that are now in place in South Africa are the same as when they were first passed in 1957, a remnant of an apartheid past from a time when it was an accepted practice for the police to exert their authority and at times brutal power to enforce the law.

SWEAT also tries to educate sex workers on safer health practices and solutions for problems ranging from violence to dealing with those clients who refuse to wear a condom. They also distribute packs of cards for sex workers to give to police who confront or harass them.

The message on the card? “Dear Police Officer, Please tell me if I am under arrest. If I am NOT under arrest, then you must let me go.” It goes on to explain a sex worker’s right to silence, right to see the officer’s badge and right to a legal adviser. It also reminds the officer of the sex worker’s right to be treated with respect.

It’s this common lack of respect and perpetuating stigma surrounding sex work that both De Bruin and Yingwana say has stalled legislation decriminalizing sex work.

“Our moral compass in South Africa should be our constitution that has been fought so hard for and what that means is that everyone has the right to their dignity and everyone has the right to a profession that they choose and everyone has the right to operate in that profession without any harassment or abuse or torture,” Yingwana said.

[This news article was sourced from the Pulizter Center on Crisis Reporting: Relying on Sex to Survive: The Fight for Decriminalization in South Africa ]

Published in News
Friday, 07 September 2012 14:02

South Africa: When sex work is work

By Guest Writer of Great Indaba.com

Linda, who asked that her last name not be used, is a provincial media co-ordinator of Sisonke, the South African sex worker movement. She was one of a long list of speakers at South Africa's first ever, national symposium on sex work held in Johannesburg recently, which brought together officials from the South African National Aids Council, the Department of Health, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and non-government organizations, including the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) and Sisonke.

As Linda told her story, conference delegates sat in rapt silence. Occasional murmurs of empathy rippled through the room as she explained that although she had hoped to finish school and go to university, her family circumstances had prevented it.

"My father was a peasant farmer, he had two wives and we were 15 children," she said of growing up in Zimbabwe. "He did not have enough money to send all of us to school. My mother was the second wife, and so my brothers from the first wife were the ones to go to school. I could only go up to Grade 9."

At the age of 19, Linda married. Her husband was a medic in the Zimbabwean army. Six years after their marriage he was sent on a peacekeeping mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo where he sustained severe head injuries in a plane crash, leading to his death.

"I was only 25," said Linda. "I had two sons. We had a fully equipped seven-room house in the city, but my husband's family wanted this for themselves. They said I should marry my husband's brother, because this was according to their culture and tradition."

Linda was adamant that she was not married "to the whole family". The only solution she saw was to leave Zimbabwe for South Africa where she could earn a living and avoid the pressure from her in-laws.

But first, she had to get a passport. "When my husband was still alive he used to say, 'I don't want you to work for the family. I will work for you and the kids. And I don't want you to have a travel document, you'll be here with the family and I will always come back to you.'

"I had to go against his wishes to get this document," said Linda. "So every time I look at it, I feel like I have broken his wish, as if I was betraying him, but there was nothing I could do because I wanted to support the family."

The following year, Linda applied for a passport. "At that time, things were very difficult in our country. You needed a lot of money to get a travel document - and it took two years. I applied for it in 2006 and I got it in 2008."

"When I came to South Africa, I was dropped in Musina," said Linda. "I didn't know anyone. I was wondering how I would find someone who wants a domestic worker. I was sitting with my bag next to me, then this truck driver approached me."

In a country where more than five million people are living with HIV, and sex workers account for one in five new HIV infections, public health workers say it is imperative that South Africans engage in a frank and honest conversation about sex work. Surveys in South Africa's major cities show an HIV prevalence rate of between 44 and 69 percent among sex workers, whereas in the general population the prevalence is around 17 percent.

However, because South Africa criminalises sex work, bringing with it a general stigma, there is little incentive for sex workers to seek out health services at government clinics where they are treated with disdain or worse.

The World Health Organisation identifies three key risks for those involved in sex work:

  • Forced sex increases the risk of transmission of HIV due to physical trauma.
  • The threat of violence limits the ability of people to negotiate safer sex.
  • Disclosure of HIV test results or the disclosure of a person's HIV status may also entail an increased risk of violence.

Sex workers generally are well-educated when it comes to safer sex and HIV prevention, but their outlaw status puts them in a weak position if they have to argue with clients to persuade them to use condoms. Furthermore, police frequently harass outdoor sex workers - and if women are found to be carrying condoms, the police use this as evidence that they are sex workers.

Under current South African law both sex workers and their clients are guilty of an offence. However, a report by the South African Women's Legal Centre published in August 2012 that documents the experiences of more than 300 sex workers found that 70 percent experienced some form of abuse at the hands of the police.

This was acknowledged by the deputy minister of police, Makhotso "Maggie" Sotyu, who, in her address to the National Sex Work Symposium said she was moved by the many complaints of police abuse that she had received in a recent meeting with sex workers.

"You can't let a police officer rape any person, let alone a sex worker," she said, adding that where police used unnecessary force, these incidents should be treated as criminal acts.

While living outside the law makes sex workers more vulnerable to abuse from police, clients and pimps, it also places a burden on the country's stretched police services. Sex work activists argue that policing the laws that criminalise sex work absorbs significant resources that, given South Africa's high crime levels, could better be deployed elsewhere.

According to the executive director of Sweat, Sally-Jean Shackleton, "targeting women with low incomes trying to earn money for their families, police are being told to invade privacy, to make impossible judgements and to devote endless time to surveillance. Of course, there are very few convictions, and instead the police feel that such demeaning rules justify their emotional and physical abuse of sex workers, as evidenced by endless stories received by our organisation".

In a tacit acknowledgement of the futility of criminalising sex work, the deputy minister said that sex work was a reality that was "here to stay" and that the South African police had more "serious challenges than running around after sex workers".

The first country in the world that has recognised sex work as a reality to be regulated like all other work is New Zealand, which decriminalised sex work in 2003. In Australia, the state of New South Wales has a similar approach.

In New Zealand, decriminalisation - as distinct from legalisation - resulted in the following changes:

  • It was no longer an offence to procure sex, run a brothel, solicit, or to live off the earnings of sex work.
  • Registration of sex workers ceased; it was replaced by licensing of people in a position of control over sex workers in a business of three or more workers.
  • A ban on people with drug or prostitution convictions working in brothels was removed.

At the same time, harsher penalties were introduced for a number of offences. These included being the client of a sex worker under the age of 18; coercing someone into sex work or keeping them there; and tougher penalties against any sex worker, client or manager who fails to promote safe sex.

According to Tim Barnett, a New Zealand member of parliament who helped champion the legislation change in 2003, "the sky did not fall in".

He argues that both police and sex workers reported a "better relationship", easing the solving of sex work-related crime, without the corruption temptations created by a criminalized environment. There has also been no evidence of an increase in the number of sex workers and brothels, but there have been cases where brothel owners who abuse sex workers and violent clients have been prosecuted.

"Five years after the law was changed, a major statutory review committee, chaired by the former police commissioner and backed up by extensive research, reported in 2008 that the real impact would take many more years but that the law was working as intended," said Barnett in documents he has presented to Sweat.

Those who oppose the decriminalisation option argue that sex work demeans the dignity of women and that options such as the "Swedish model" - which criminalises only the client and outlaws pimps and brothels - are better options.

According to activists in Sweat and Sisonke, these arguments ignore the indignity of poverty and what it means to lack education for work that pays more than a minimum wage, in an environment of high unemployment.

They also argue that South Africa's current legal framework is not in line with international treaties to which it is a signatory.

For Linda and other sex workers, the issue is simple: "This is how I feed my family. All we want is for our work to be recognised as work."

[This news article was sourced from Great Indaba.com: South Africa: When sex is work.]

Published in News

At the National Sex Work Symposium: Best practices in HIV Prevention Care and Treatment for Sex Workers in South Africa, the Women’s Legal Centre (“WLC”), Sisonke and the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (“SWEAT”) released a report which finds that police officers in South Africa are the main violators of sex workers’ human rights.

“Stop Harassing Us! Tackle Real Crime!: A report on Human Rights Violations By Police Against Sex Workers In South Africa” draws on the views and voices of more than 300 sex workers in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Limpopo.

“The human rights abuses of sex workers in South Africa is alarming and demands immediate attention” says Stacey-Leigh Manoek, an attorney at the WLC and author of the report. This research shows that the existing legal framework is unacceptably liable to police discretion and encourages police corruption and abuse.

Sex workers said that when they are arrested by the police they are often assaulted, pepper sprayed, bribed and sexually assaulted. Almost 1 in 6 sex workers who approached WLC experienced physical or sexual assault by the police. A female sex worker from Cape Town said “The coloured police officer grabbed me, and my clothes came off. Then they pepper sprayed me in my mouth and beat me”.

Police abuse of sex workers in South Africa is systemic and widespread. Of the 308 sex workers interviewed for this study, 70 percent experienced some form of abuse at the hands of police. Many reported more than one violation. A sex worker from Johannesburg told us her story, “Then the policemen told me to go outside and stand in a line with the other women. When we got outside, one of the ladies said that we should run away from them. So we all started running. Then the policemen started shooting at us. They shot me twice with rubber bullets in my shoulder. But I kept running. I did not want to stop. Later I went to the clinic to bandage my wounds.”

Another sex worker in Cape Town recalled her sexual assault by the police, “A police officer unzipped his pants and put a condom on. I got a shock. They started speaking to me rudely. They told me that I must give each one of them a blow job (oral sex), which I did. He put me on the floor. The police officer raped me, then the second one, after that the third one did it again. I was crying after the three left without saying anything. Then the first one appeared again… He let me out by the back gate without my property. I was so scared that my family would find out.”

Police officers commit these crimes with impunity. They remove their name tags so that sex workers are unable to identify them and they instil such fear in the sex workers that they are afraid to report these crimes to the authorities. A sex worker in Cape Town said “One day I was standing on one of the corners, the police came and ask what I was doing there and who I am waiting for, then they put me in the van and told me that they are taking me to the police station, but instead they took me back off the street and wanted sexual favours, and both of them had no tame tags.”

138 sex workers reported being arrested, and only 21 appeared in court. Indicating that the pattern of arresting sex workers without the intention to prosecute is still prevalent. Manoek says that this practice “is a clear constitutional human rights violation of the right to defend oneself in court and not to be arbitrarily deprived of one’s freedom.” Almost half of those who had been arrested where held beyond the 48 hours maximum period permitted by law and 70 percent said that while they were in detention they had been denied access to food or water.

The report makes recommendations to the South African government to decriminalise sex work. It also calls on Chapter 9 institutions such as the Commission for Gender Equality to investigate the human rights abuses that sex workers experience. It also calls on civil society organisations to support the call for decriminalisation and to meaningfully include sex workers in their work.

SWEAT’s advocacy officer Ntokozo Yingwana says that “in order to address this human rights crisis and the human rights violations that sex workers experience, South Africa should decriminalise the selling and buying of sex and the system should be reformed to bring the treatment of sex workers in line with our constitutional and international obligations to reduce this type of abuse.”

“Sex work should be decriminalised now! The South African Law Reform commission has been sitting on this matter for the past ten years and they keep on postponing the time when they will release their report. This gives us the impression that this matter is of no importance to them. This democracy is failing us”, says Kholi Buthelezi, national coordinator Sisonke- the only sex worker led movement in South Africa.

[This news article was sourced from the Women's Legal Centre website: http://www.wlce.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=151:a-report-on-human-rights-violations-by-police-against-sex-workers-in-south-africa-&catid=55:press-releases&Itemid=83]

Published in Research

The deputy minister of police says that sex work must be recognized so it can be professionalized and police brutality against sex workers can be eradicated.

Speaking at the National Sex Work Symposium in Johannesburg yesterday (23 August 2012), Deputy Minister of Police, Makhotso "Maggie" Sotyu, said the sex work sector should be 'handled with dignity' - and that the police ministry should play its part.

In a reference to current South African law, which criminalises both sex workers and their clients, the deputy minister asked why it was that the police arrested sex workers, but ignored their clients. 'Is it because she's a woman?' she asked?

Acknowledging the challenges of crime facing the country and the need to deploy scarce police resources effectively, Sotyu said, 'We have more serious challenges than running after sex workers.'

Sotyu said she was moved by the many complaints of police abuse - which included beatings, pepper spray and rape - that she has received from sex workers during recent meetings with the Sex Worker Education Task Force and the sex worker-led movement, Sisonke.

'You can't let a police officer rape any person, let alone a sex worker,' she told the symposium, adding that where police used unnecessary force these incidents should be treated as criminal acts.

'Freedom in 1994 is freedom for all,' she said. 'You can't be harassed by police officers and say you are free.'

Sotyu called on organisations representing sex workers to provide her with documentary evidence of police abuse so that she could follow up with provincial police commissioners as well as police stations 'because that is where the problem is'.

Concluding her presentation, before taking questions from sex workers and other delegates to the symposium, the deputy minister said, 'I promise you, I commit myself, I will support you and your endeavors.'

Published in SWEAT Press Releases
Tuesday, 17 April 2012 09:12

Why sex work should be decriminalised

By Ntokozo Yingwana, SWEAT Advocacy Officer

Under the Sexual Offences Act of 1957, amended in 2007 sex work is fully criminalised in South Africa. This means that the sex worker, their client, and anyone who lives off the earnings of a sex worker are considered criminals.

Criminalisation is extremely difficult to enforce (with only 11 clients having been prosecuted for engaging the services of a sex worker since 2007). It has created a harmful environment in which police can and do abuse and harass sex workers with impunity, health care providers stigmatise and discriminate against sex workers, and a range of human rights abuses against sex workers by the general public are legitimised.

Human rights abuses of sex workers in South Africa are alarming and demand immediate attention. Most sex workers are women, and these abuses are crimes of violence against women. The incidence of physical violence, including rape, is higher among sex workers than among the general population.

It is with this disturbing backdrop that SWEAT, the Cape Town-based Sex Workers’ Education and Advocacy Taskforce, welcomes debate on the law regarding sex work in South Africa. Some organisations are proposing Sweden’s partial-criminalisation/partial-decriminalisation as the answer. It may sound fair – criminalising the clients and others, but not criminalising sex workers – however, the evidence shows what logic tells us – that it really is lose-lose law.

The director of the Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor at the American University in Washington, Anne Jordan offers a compelling argument against the Swedish model. In an article, The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A failed experiment in social engineering (Issue Paper 4, April 2012), Jordan states that, “[t]he reports produced by the Swedish government and other researchers reveal that the government’s claims of success are not supported by facts. There is no evidence that fewer men are purchasing sex, that fewer women are selling sex or that fewer people are being trafficked or forced into prostitution.”

Jordan goes on to recommend that, “[g]overnments that are proposing to adopt a law like Sweden’s should consider whether they, too, wish to waste scarce resources and political capital on a law that is unsuccessful and also certain to produce harm.”

Since its inception in Sweden in 1999, partial-criminalisation has forced sex workers to move their trade into much more hidden and potentially dangerous locations, and into accepting risky clients who may turn out to be violent, reports Jordan. Rather, she argues, “they should develop real solutions based on evidence and rights instead of ideology and emotions”.

Partial-criminalisation of sex work is based on the discredited belief that by creating laws that criminalise the buyer of sex, there will be a decrease in the market-demand for sex work, which will ultimately result in a decrease (or total eradication) of sex workers. This is a social engineering exercise that echoes the Immorality Act of the apartheid government, which sought to police the private engagements of consenting adults.

SWEAT encourages our government to engage with the evidence, instead of succumbing to discourse, which undermines our hard-fought Constitution. Our government would do well to note that just last month the Canadian Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that partial-criminalisation laws were indeed responsible for the increase in violence against sex workers in their country, and have subsequently called for the reform of these laws.

Laws that criminalise sex work, in whole or part, remove the sex worker’s own agency. Instead they aim to disempower sex workers, and prevent them from exercising their labour and human rights. The mistake made by those advocating for partial-criminalisation is to assume they know what is best for sex workers, even before bothering to consult with them. They refuse to believe that anyone would voluntarily sell sex to make a living, even when the reality we live in points to just that.

Sisonke - the national sex worker movement- has repeatedly called for the full decriminalisation of sex work. “As sex workers we support decriminalisation as the best and only legal option for South Africa because it will recognise our rights to work, it will enable safer working conditions for us and will greatly reduce the police violence,” says Kholi Buthelezi, the National Sisonke Coordinator.

Partial-criminalisation has been incorrectly touted as the solution to human trafficking by some groups, however, since sex workers will still be treated as criminals, even under partial-criminalisation, they will still be unlikely to assist the police in dealing with crime.

By contrast, decriminalisation will bring in stronger laws to protect individuals against coerced sex work, human trafficking and sexual exploitation of minors. The key benefit of decriminalisation is a vast improvement in the relationship between police and sex workers, to the point that sex workers become key information sources in attempts to uncover human trafficking. Currently, sex workers are afraid to do so, because they risk arrest. According to Buthelezi, “People tend to forget that sex workers are also community members and many of us are concerned with crime. If sex work is decriminalised, we would be in a better position to assist the police to combat crime”.

South Africa has many important issues to address. Many require additional police resources. To waste taxpayers money compelling the police to enforce an unjust and unworkable law against sex work is plain outlandish. And to promote a discredited model of law reform is misguided. There is a win-win solution, decriminalisation.

[An edited version of this article appeared on the Cape Times, on Thursday 12 April 2012, under the title: 'Decriminalisation of sex work is only way to ensure win-win outcome'.]

Published in Decriminalisation

By Lesley Lanir, Digital Journal

Johannesburg - A sex worker from Zimbabwe thought to have been murdered by a client was found strangled to death with an electric cord at the Ambassador brothel in Hillbrow Johannesburg, South Africa, over the weekend. Her eyes had been plucked out with a coat hanger. I contacted Maria Stacey National Outreach and Development Manager SWEAT (Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce) regarding the incident.

This is a shocking incident but abuse and crimes of all types against sex workers are unfortunately common to us. Her family did not know she was a sex worker so her name cannot be revealed. She worked at a well-known Hillbrow brothel called The Ambassador. I spoke to my colleague Kholi Buthelezi, who is the National Coordinator of the Sisonke Sex Workers Movement. She said there is a traditional belief that the image of the killer is imprinted on the eyes of a murder victim, hence the murderer stabbed her eyes to prevent himself from being identified. The police are investigating.

What does SWEAT do?
SWEAT works to address the health and human rights of South African sex workers. Estimated 130, 000 – 500, 000 sex workers in South Africa out of a population of almost 50 million.

What about HIV and AIDS?
19.8% of all new HIV infections in South Africa are sex work related, however, only 5% have access to comprehensive HIV prevention, treatment care and support according to South Africa’s National AIDS Council (SANAC).

Is sex work a criminal offence in South Africa?
Sex work is criminalised in South Africa and sex workers are subject to stigma and abuse. In recent research conducted in the Eastern Cape for the United Nations Populations Fund UNFPA, sex workers spoke of their experiences at the hands of police; contrary to what many believe, most sex workers are not forced to do the work, and experience less abuse from clients and pimps than from the police. As one sex worker said, ”I have never been abused except by the police.”

How does SWEAT give the sex workers support?
One of the things we do is try to get the women’s stories out there to try to make people understand and see what is happening to young women. So we teach online media through workshops. Sex workers are taught how to make short digital stories about their lives. Topics range from police abuse, to entrapment, to rape, to being a refugee, to male rape, to HIV and relationships.

Was it easy to persuade the sex workers to make these video clips?
Sex workers want other people to know that they are human beings like any other mothers, daughters, girlfriends, wives, members of communities, members of church choirs and so on.

In order to emphasise the dreadful plight of these sex workers- what other examples of abuse can you tell us?
There is another incident that we are involved in at the moment. A sex worker in Booysens, Johannesburg killed her Nigerian pimp. She had been subjected to severe and prolonged abuse by him. He beat her daily, controlled her movements, and took most of the money she earned, leaving her with R10 ($1,50) per day. While she was in hospital as a result of her beating, she resolved to go back and kill him as she believed there was no other way of ending the abuse. After killing him, she ran away to Durban, but later handed herself into the police. She has been transferred back to Johannesburg to await trial. Sisonke will be supporting her and organising legal support.

[This news article was sourced from the Digital Journal: Sex worker strangled to death, eyes poked out]

Published in News
Thursday, 12 April 2012 14:05

Sex workers tell it in pictures

In October 2010, an exhibition entitled "Working the City: experiences of migrant women in inner-city Johannesburg" was held at the Market Photo Workshop (MPW) in Johannesburg. The month-long exhibition was the culmination of a participatory photography project which involved collaboration between Sisonke Sex Worker Movement, the MPW and the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at Wits University.

The project worked with eleven migrant women involved in sex work in Johannesburg inner-city. The women were trained in basic photography and editing skills. Under the mentorship of students from the MPW, the women created posters that displayed their photo stories, captions and narratives of their experiences. This project contributes to an ongoing body of research that is being undertaken with women involved in sex work in inner-city Johannesburg.

In this blog (click to view) we share some of the images selected and displayed at the exhibition, along with the accompanying captions that were written by the photographers. We hope that this visual project will contribute to an increasing body of knowledge relating to the experiences of migrant women involved in sex work and how they represent themselves, perceive and experience the city. Importantly, we see this methodology as a way of ensuring that the voices of urban populations are heard, with the aim being to influence policy and programmatic responses to address the needs of inner-city residents.

Since 2010, the exhibition has been displayed at a range of local and international conferences, including the International Conference on Urban Health, Minas Gerais, Brazil; Es'Kia Graduate Colloquium, Johannesburg, South Africa; International Association of Forced Migration Studies, Kampala, Uganda; 1st International HIV Social Science and Humanities Conference, Durban, South Africa.

[This press release was received from the University of Witwatersrand's African Centre for Migration Society]

Published in News
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