More than half of SA's sex workers victims of rape, study finds

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A study looked at the violence experienced by a sample pool of 3 000 female sex workers in the country.
A study looked at the violence experienced by a sample pool of 3 000 female sex workers in the country.
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  • A study looked at the violence experienced by a sample pool of 3 000 female sex workers in the country.
  • The study found that 70% had experienced violence, while 57.9% had been raped. 
  • The study was conducted by the South African Medical Research Council and the Perinatal HIV Research Unit.

Early findings of a study by the South African Medical Research Council and the Perinatal HIV Research Unit has found that more than half of sex workers, in a sample of 3 000, have been victims of rape. 

This is the first time evidence has been available from a national sample of sex workers linked to sex worker programmes in 12 sites.

The study followed a 2016 pilot in Soweto conducted among female sex workers. It showed that sex workers were extremely vulnerable to violence, mental health problems and, worryingly, signs of HIV drug resistance.

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"In the past year, 70.4% of female sex workers experienced physical violence, and 57.9% were raped: by policemen (14.0%), clients (48.3%), other men (30.2%) and/or an intimate partner (31.9%)," the study found. 

It said:

Sexual intimate partner violence was associated with food insecurity, entering sex work as a child, childhood trauma exposure, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), drinking alcohol to cope with sex work, working more days, partner controlling behaviour, having an ex-client partner, and having no current partner to protect from ex-partners.

It looked at the factors that made sex workers vulnerable to rape by their intimate partners or other men, and found this was also associated with food insecurity, childhood trauma, PTSD, depression, using alcohol and drugs, being homeless or staying in a sex work venue, selling sex on the streets, working more days and having entered sex work as a child and been in sex work for longer.

Dr Jenny Coetzee, the principal investigator of the study, said it had put numbers to the high levels of violence experienced by sex workers and that, because of the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, there would likely be an increase in the number of people engaging in "survival-type" sex work.

"It is vital that sex worker programmes are properly resourced, so that they can help protect sex workers from violence ... There has been a lot of research showing what needs to be done to help sex workers. Now we need committed resources to protect this vulnerable group of women," Coetzee said.

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