The lives of sex workers are not negotiable

2018-07-01 00:03
Kholi Buthelezi

Kholi Buthelezi

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WATCH: Proposal for sex work to be decriminalised

2017-07-05 14:01

Gauteng Province raised the 'contentious issue' of sex workers and the decriminalisation of their work in plenary. Watch. WATCH

Sisonke, National Movement of Sex Workers in South Africa is the largest independent sex worker-led organisation in the country. Sisonke was founded to promote and protect the health, and legal and human rights of people who sell sex.

The purpose of the movement, formed in 2003, was to develop national solidarity among sex workers in South Africa and organise in response to the human rights violations that were being experienced in the sex industry. We have grown to having members represented in all nine provinces, with offices in five.

Sisonke’s aim is to unite sex workers across the country to stand up for their rights and to ensure members have access to health and human rights as enshrined in the South African Constitution.

We choose to use the term ‘sex work’, as opposed to prostitution, because we see what we do as work. Prostitution is a demeaning word used to belittle sex workers, and women in general.

Currently, South Africa fully criminalises sex work – both buyers and sellers. This has resulted in stigma and discrimination against sex workers; extraordinarily high levels of violence; exploitation of minors, and lack of access to health and legal services for sex workers.

As a movement, we approach our work from the perspective of lived experiences, evidence, the needs of our constituency and, most importantly, rights. These are all the factors we considered in our support for the full decriminalisation of sex work.

We have engaged with other legal models that are used around the world to regulate sex work and we have spoken to sex workers in countries where these laws are implemented. We have also lived under a legal model that criminalises our clients and ourselves and we have lived the consequences of this law.

This has made it clear that decriminalisation is the best solution for South Africa to ensure that sex workers can access their human rights. Decriminalisation is also the recommendation of organisations that support human rights. Examples are: South Africa’s Commission for Gender Equality; South African National Aids Council; trade union federation Cosatu; Asijiki Coalition (which has 72 member organisations); Federation of Unions of South Africa; Human Rights Watch; and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects – to name but a few.

On a daily basis our position is often challenged by those who see our work as immoral and by those who feel we can’t make our own decisions, and we are treated as criminals and stereotypes.

Daily we have to deal with stigma and discrimination, violence, and the deaths of our colleagues all over the country, leaving families to suffer, because sex workers don’t only support themselves.

We will continue to listen to sex workers, we will continue to listen to evidence, we will continue to advocate human rights, we will continue to provide stigma-free services and we will continue to call for the full decriminalisation of sex work.

We are ready and open for robust debate based on evidence and respectful engagement – based on facts and not conspiracy theories and sensationalism.

Our call for the decriminalisation of sex work is urgent and must be prioritised, as lives are at stake.

We have seen the damage that personal opinions, politics, government, institutions and religion have had on the lives of sex workers. We call for government and the public to take the lives of sex workers seriously.

As much as people have different views and opinions, what is not negotiable is that our lives must be protected, our choices respected and our human rights upheld.

Buthelezi is the Sisonke national coordinator

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