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Cape Town sex workers call for law reform

Cape Town, South Africa | Two street-based sex workers, Natasha and Sandy, talk to two men inside a pub. There are worries that police strategies in the run up to the world cup will put sex workers at greater risk / Nikki Rixon - Panos Pictures

Vice squads in Cape Town have been cracking down on the city’s sex trade ahead of the World Cup. However, female sex workers say continued criminalisation makes it harder to protect themselves against HIV.

Babalwa Jackson knows about safe sex. A sex worker in Cape Town, Babalwa also volunteers as a peer educator with a sex worker lobby group, spreading the message to women to protect themselves against HIV.

However, she says the recent crackdown on sex work is making it more difficult to get the message across. “If we walk between the clubs in town, cops will pick us up and if they find even two condoms in our bags they say ‘you are the one making Cape Town dirty, now come with us’,” she says. She says ‘the girls’ are becoming reluctant to even carry condoms for fear of being arrested.

Last summer the South African government launched a discussion paper on ‘adult prostitution’ and held workshops in several major cities where the public could give their views. The law commission suggested four options: the current position of total criminalisation of sex work, partial criminalisation, decriminalisation and regulation.

Babalwa Jackson and other sex workers say decriminalisation would make life safer for themselves and their families. She says sex workers are often held in prison for a weekend, before being released without charge. “We are also mothers and when we don’t come home we worry about who will take care of our children,” says Babalwa.

However, the process has proved slow with a decision unlikely to be made before next year. In the meantime, Cape Town’s vice squad continues to raid brothels and round up sex workers. With one of Cape Town’s main red light districts running next to the city’s sleek new football stadium, the police aim to clear sex workers from the streets by the time fans arrive for the matches.

Eric Harper, director of the Sex Worker Education Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), the lobby group Babalwa volunteers with, agrees that criminalisation of their work can make protecting themselves harder. “Many clients will attempt to force sex workers to have sex without a condom or demand to pay much less for sex with a condom,” he said.

Whether sex work should be decriminalised has sparked fierce debate in South Africa. Three different camps have emerged in the debate. Lobby groups like SWEAT and some feminist groups want to see sex work decriminalised. The conservative lobby, partly made up by the country’s growing evangelical church movement, want to see prostitution stamped out completely. The third camp is made up of disparate but powerful politicians who say it’s time to accept that sex work is not going away and that the government needs to regulate it.

HIV prevalence among South Africa’s sex worker community is around 45 per cent, according to the Reproductive Health and HIV Research Unit at Witwatersrand. “From a public health perspective, it is clear that the current system of criminalisation of sex work does not work,” says Lauren Jankelowitz, programme manager for special services and community engagement at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Reproductive Health and HIV Research Unit (RHRU) in Johannesburg.

“It renders women even more vulnerable to HIV and STI infection, as well as violence and abuse at the hands of clients, community and police. It makes it very difficult for healthcare workers to access sex workers and to identify trafficked women and children” she says.

In a report titled ‘Sex work and the 2010 FIFA World Cup: time for public health imperatives to prevail’ published in February’s journal Globalisation and Health, the authors argue that laws which criminalise sex work not only increase sex workers’ individual risk for HIV, but also compromise broader public health goals.

They suggest that growing evidence on HIV prevention suggest that sex work is best approached in a context where it is decriminalised and where sex workers are empowered.

Such regulation could happen either through setting up red light districts or following the Swedish example of criminalising the client in order to protect sex workers.

The Swedish sex work law, enacted in 1998, criminalises clients and prohibits “pimping”. It is seen as a way to appease millions of religious and traditional citizens, and to face off objections from ratepayers associations opposed to red light zones being set up on their doorsteps.

However, it is highly unpopular with sex workers like Leigh Roman, who says criminalising the client “will lead to us doing business in places where police never go. We prefer to stand under the streetlights, where we are safe.”

Leigh says she does not have a pimp because pimps want a large cut of the earnings. Working from a busy high street with other sex workers nearby, they look out for each other, she adds.

However, at least until the World Cup is over, the relative safety of a busy high street is unlikely to be an option. As police continue to move the women off the streets they risk pushing them underground and further into danger.

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