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Although it is frowned upon in many parts of the world, there are certain countries such as the Netherlands and New Zealand that support and even promote sex work as a profession. South Africa, however, has debated whether prostitution should be legalised for over a decade.
According to South Africa’s Sexual Offences Act of 1957, the buying of sexual services is a criminal offence. The act also criminalises, among other things, the possession of a brothel and living off the earnings of a prostitute. If a sex worker is caught and is a first-time offender, he or she is granted bail. If the sex worker cannot pay the fine, they are imprisoned until they are heard in court. Generally, only minor sentences are given, such as community service or a fine. If the sex worker is caught again, he or she can go to jail.
According to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, 720 deaths of sex workers in South Africa were recorded in their 2011/2012 annual report. Pro-sex work groups are pressuring government to decriminalise prostitution because of statistics like these.
The Women’s Legal Centre (WLC) found in a study conducted last year that 70% of sex workers in South Africa have experienced police abuse. Police brutality is a criminal offence. Stacey-Leigh Manoek, a WLC lawyer, argues that, “In order to address this human rights crisis and human rights violations that sex workers experience, South Africa should decriminalise the selling and buying of sex.” Manoek says that the only way these abuses will decrease is if the system is reformed and treats prostitution as any other profession in our country.
Many religious and conservative organisations have rallied against the legalisation of prostitution. On the other hand, sex workers have formed organisations, such as Sisonke (the only South African movement for sex workers led by sex workers) and Sex Workers’ Education and Advocacy Taskforce (better known as SWEAT), to help and support other sex workers.
When President Jacob Zuma didn’t mention the country’s aim to legalise prostitution in the State of the Nation address earlier this year, pro-legalising groups took to the streets of Johannesburg a month after the address. Zubeida Shaik, a volunteer coordinator for the One Billion Rising campaign (an organisation that supports the decriminalisation of prostitution), says that, “The stereotyping of sex workers forces them to have no protection against police abuse or anyone else for that matter.” Shaik adds that because prostitution is a crime in South Africa, the illegal label gives perpetrators the belief that they can abuse sex workers without being reported. Nigel Bougard from the Department of Social Work and Criminology at Tuks believes that if the law stays as it is, crime against prostitutes and the spread of sexually transmitted infections among prostitutes will increase.
In April this year, human rights lawyer Dianna Post and writer and filmmaker Bishakha Datta had an argument concerning the legalisation of prostitution via the internet. Post argues that prostitution is the “colonisation of women” and that legalising it would allow women to be abused and devalued. Datta argues that prostitution will not be devaluating if it is decriminalised and that, “The harm in sex work comes not from the act of selling sex, but from the stigma and violence surrounding it because of its illegal nature.”
Different South African political parties also have differing views on the legalisation of prostitution. The ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) treasurer and Economic Development deputy minister Hlengiwe Mkize says that the ANCWL supports the legalisation of sex work and has drawn-up a resolution that they hope parliament will pass. The African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), however, does not agree. Steve Swart, a standing member of the ACDP believes that “South Africans would be opposed to the decriminalisation of prostitution”.
Whether the legalisation of prostitution will reduce our country’s crime rate is unclear. Countries that have legalised prostitution have experienced different results. The crime rate has decreased in New Zealand since they legalised prostitution. However, when it comes to the Netherlands and its red-light district where prostitution has been legal since the 1600s, violence and abuse have actually increased.
An official decision on the matter has not been made by the South African government for several reasons. Bougard says that a lot of aspects have to be taken into consideration, such as the legality of amending the constitution, the social-moral response of citizens and the country’s capacity to regulate the industry.
In June, the Sexual Violence Research Initiative conducted a research agenda on prostitution in South Africa for the South African Law Reform Commission. South Africans have to wait for the law commission to review the matter before further decisions regarding legalisation can be made.
Bougard believes that prostitution will be legalised within the next five years, but will South Africans be able to change their views about sex workers if prostitution is legalised?
Photo: Brad Donald and Reinhard Nell