Sex workers in South Africa: Ignored by the state, abused by police

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New Frame

New Frame have written a feature on the impact of COVID-19 on sex workers in South Africa, looking specifically at the damaging impacts of criminalisation and the need to maintain a focus on the long-term policy changes that position sex workers as equal and protected citizens.

We have selected some extracts below, but you can visit the New Frame website to read the full report.

“Covid-19 has intensified the symptoms of South Africa’s chronic failures and, in the case of the nation’s sex workers, promises of change and efforts to dull the pain of lockdown only temporarily mask a systemic crisis.

The social and economic exclusion of South Africa’s sex workers [from the Covid-19 Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme] cannot, however, be isolated to this health crisis alone. Rather, these effects are manifestations of a system that criminalises sex work and, in doing so, perpetuates government ambivalence towards the needs of this marginalised group, inhibits sex workers from accessing vital healthcare resources and permits the continued, and now intensified, abuse of vulnerable women by police.

Mathe [national coordinator at the Asijiki Coalition for the Decriminalisation of Sex Work] observed how “sex workers are scared even to go to the shops … police will see them and know that they are sex workers … even if they are just buying food, police will stop them, accuse them of doing sex work or use outstanding warrants against them”. Mathe added that the situation is worse for sex workers living on and around the farms of the Cape Winelands. Many have been evicted from their residences or laid off from temporary jobs on farms and are unable to engage in sex work because of intensified policing efforts on the streets. This abrupt loss of income and housing security has been compounded by militarised roadblocks and police stops, which stand between sex workers and grocery stores in towns great distances away.

The new and compelling problems caused by Covid-19 have made it all the more important that promises of decriminalisation – and sustainable projects to assist and protect marginalised South African workers – are not lost in government relief efforts. Sweat, Sonke Gender Justice and the Asijiki Coalition, advocacy groups previously dedicated to campaigning for decriminalisation and workplace protections for sex workers, have had to shift their focus to the immediate humanitarian crisis caused by the social and economic effects of the coronavirus. 

Mathe repeatedly expressed her frustration at ongoing difficulties in raising the salience of sex workers’ needs and keeping long-term policy goals on the national agenda. In a country battling a pandemic of gender-based violence alongside Covid-19, the protection of sex workers and decriminalisation of the sex market ought to be a priority. Treating the immediate problems exposed and exacerbated by lockdown is a necessary first step, but only through maintaining a focus on the long-term policy changes that position sex workers as equal and protected citizens can we guarantee workplace dignity for all South Africans.”