Statement by South African civil society organisations, applaud verdict in de Jager case and call for decriminalization of sex work

The Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), Sisonke Sex Worker Movement, the Women's Legal Centre and Sonke Gender Justice welcome the judgment handed down by the Western Cape High Court on 29 April 2014 that found double murder accused Johannes de Jager guilty of raping and murdering Hiltina Alexander, a sex worker, in May 2008 in Cape Town.  De Jager was also found guilty of murdering and dismembering 16-year old teenager Charmaine Mare in 2013.  Sentencing was supposed to be handed down on the 22 May 2014, but due to Afrikaans translator not readily available on the day; the hearing was postponed until today. In today's hearing, the acting Judge Chuma Cossie handed down three life sentences to run concurrently, finding there were no substantial and compelling circumstances allowing her to deviate from prescribed minimum sentences.
 

Gender-based violence is an injustice that affects many women and girls worldwide, with South Africa recording some of the highest rates of sexual violence.  Violence against sex workers is particularly pronounced, and recent research shows that a third to half of all sex workers experienced violence in their workplaces in the last year. A legal framework that criminalises sex work greatly increases sex workers' vulnerability to violence and reduces the likelihood that violence will be reported.  Very few perpetrators of crimes against sex workers are brought to justice.  In addition, high levels of violence against sex workers are linked to social stigma which has contributed to sex workers being viewed as second class citizens. Says Sisonke organizer, Dudu Dlamini “as a sex worker who experienced a lot of abuse from police and being raped , I never reported it because of laws that are used against us as sex workers. These laws label us criminals and bad people who not deserve safety and security. The law takes away our dignity and makes us all vulnerable to speak out”. We mourn the violent and unnecessary deaths of Alexander and Mare  - but also question the slow response of the criminal justice system –“De Jager raped and murdered Alexander in 2008 – had he been arrested and prosecuted for this crime, 16-year-old Mare may still be alive today” Sally Shackleton, Director of SWEAT said. Mare was killed in 2013, five years after Alexander’s body was found.

Marlise Richter, from Sonke Gender Justice added “While Alexander’s case took 6 years to conclude, the South African Law Reform Commission has spent more than 13 years researching legal models for sex work in South Africa”.

SWEAT, Sisonke and Sonke Gender justice call on the South African Law Reform Commission to release their recommendations on sex work and the law, and ultimately for the South African government to decriminalise sex work.   During this unconscionable delay, countless sex workers in South Africa have experienced rape, abuse and torture by clients, the police and the general public, while a number have been murdered. Removing the criminal law from sex work and bringing it under rights-based labour and occupational health & safety laws will reduce violence and enhance sex worker- and public safety.

Alexander’s rape and murder is yet another urgent call to immediately safeguard sex worker rights.