Criminalisation of sex work is an expression of stigma against sex workers and is opposed by sex workers and sex workers’ rights organisations around the world. In South Africa, the Sisonke Sex Workers’ Movement and Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) have continued to advocate for the full decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa, by raising public awareness of the human rights violations suffered by sex workers under the current outdated legal framework.
At their 54th National Conference in December 2017, the African National Congress announced their intention to support the full decriminalisation of sex work, which was welcomed by the sex workers’ rights movement. The announcement was made at a media briefing on the party's social transformation commission resolutions during the national elective conference in Soweto, Johannesburg.
The decision by African National Congress was confirmed by Human Settlement portfolio committee chair Nocawe Mafu, after giving feedback on discussions about social transformation at the party's conference in Johannesburg.
The move by the ANC to fully decriminalise sex work would mean the removal of criminal penalties for sex workers. In the last decade, organisations such as UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation have called on countries around the world to decriminalise sex work in an effort to respond to HIV and ensure that sex workers have proper access to healthcare.
The announcement came after Sisonke held events in every province from Kimberly to Welkom to Commemorate the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, where over 850 sex workers came together to remember our colleagues lost to violence.
In a statement welcoming the announcement, Kholi Buthelezi, the National Coordinator at Sisonke, reiterated: “we don’t want our rights to be written in a resolution, we want them in real life. Now that this decision has been taken, we want action. As sex workers, we are ready to join the ANC and members of parliament at the table to draft the reforms needed to make this real. We are here, we are ready… We now need to see a commitment to action from the ANC and its ministers and parliamentarians.”
She further reiterated that she wanted a society in which the constitution was upheld: “A society where all freedom, our freedom, is not only written about in law books but where it is put into practice”.
“This goes beyond party politics – decriminalisation will change lives and even save lives,” says Zoe Black, a migrant sex worker, an activist and a member of the SWEAT Board. No matter what you think of sex work, people who sell sex are your neighbours, your children, your mothers, your sisters – we deserve your acceptance, respect and the protection of legal recognition”.
SWEAT said this was a step in the right direction, but they were “cautiously optimistic” as this is not the first time the ANC has announced their support for decriminalisation. SWEAT’s Executive Director, Sally Shackleton, said the announcement “acknowledged that South Africa’s current legal framework creates a context where violence can occur with impunity”, and that changing the law is “a huge symbolic act of inclusion. It won’t stop the stigma overnight, but it will make a significant contribution to change.”
Sisonke and SWEAT are now co-ordinating an online petition to the Women’s Caucus, calling for the meaningful involvement of sex workers in developing a new report on the proposed legal model for sex work. They hope to draw attention to the need for full decriminalisation and increase support in Parliament.