Sex workers need you, Mr Zuma

2014-05-25 15:00

We write to you, President Jacob Zuma, with great concern for the wellbeing of all sex workers in South Africa.

Our ­appeal is based on high levels of severe forms of violence perpetrated against sex workers and the lack of ­action taken by your administration to address these human rights violations suffered by a marginalised group, whose rights our Constitution purports to protect and advance.

Sex workers are subjected to violence at the hands of their clients, the police and their intimate partners. A recent study conducted by the Women’s Legal Centre showed that 30% of sex workers in South Africa’s five biggest cities experienced abuse at the hands of police.

In a survey of its national programme in 2013, the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) found that sex workers named the police as the perpetrators of violence 53% of the time.

Criminalisation of sex work, coupled with the high levels of violence perpetrated by the state through the police, stops sex workers from accessing justice and reinforces the stigma that prevents sex workers from accessing healthcare and social services.

Criminalisation accordingly drives sex workers even ­further to the margins of our society.

The decriminalisation of sex work can reduce sex workers’ vulnerability to violence at the hands of police, clients and intimate partners, and contribute to eliminating the stigma that is a barrier to service delivery.

New Zealand, one of the only countries in the world to have decriminalised the adult sex work industry, provides evidence of the benefits of decriminalisation. Governmental and independent research has demonstrated an improvement in the health and safety of sex workers there.

The Commission for Gender Equality has publicly ­announced its support for the decriminalisation of sex work, as have many international institutions concerned with health and human rights, including the World Health ­Organisation and Human Rights Watch.

In October last year, you, Mr President, replied to a question about the delay in the appointment of members of the SA Law Reform Commission to take forward Project 107 on “adult prostitution”. You replied, in Parliament, that seven commissioners were appointed to deal with the matter.

Despite several efforts made by ­organisations advocating sex workers’ human rights for progress to be made on Project 107 over the past 13 years – and while sex workers continue to be harassed, raped, assaulted and murdered – our efforts remain fruitless.

We call on you, President Zuma, to take urgent steps to address these ­human rights violations by decriminalising sex work.

Your voice as the democratically elected leader of South Africa will contribute to our ­efforts and those of our partners to ­reduce the stigma and discrimination that makes sex workers vulnerable to human rights abuses.

In essence, we ­appeal to you to uphold our constitutional imperatives of human dignity and equality for all.

Nomonde Nyembe, Cherith Sanger and Sally-Jean Shackleton work for Sweat

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