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SA moves a step closer to decriminalising sex work

SA moves a step closer to decriminalising sex work
A Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) exhibition at the International AIDS Conference in 2016 entitled The Desk of Disappointment’. Nineteen years and we are still waiting for law reform!(Photo: Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce)

Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele announced on Thursday that the Cabinet had approved critical legislation in the decriminalisation of sex work. 

The abuse and exploitation of sex workers in South Africa could soon be a thing of the past following a Cabinet decision to approve the publishing for comment of a widely anticipated bill on the decriminalisation of sex work.   

The decision was communicated by Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele on Thursday, December 1 — World Aids Day, which is dedicated to raising awareness and honouring those who lost their lives to the disease.   

The bill, once promulgated into law, will repeal the Sexual Offences Act (previously Immorality Act), 1957 (Act 23 of 1957). It will also repeal section 11 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, 2007 (Act 32 of 2007) to decriminalise the sale and purchase of adult sexual services.  

“The proposals of this bill respond to the list of interventions proposed in Pillar 3 (Protection, Safety and Justice) of the National Strategic Plan on GBVF (gender-based violence and femicide), which enjoins the criminal justice system to provide protection, safety and justice for survivors of GBVF, and to effectively hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. Once passed into law, it will, amongst others, protect sex workers against abuse and exploitation,” said Gungubele. 

Not only will the bill protect women from abuse and exploitation, it will also provide economic options for sex workers as South Africa’s unemployment rate fell to 32.9%, translating to more than seven million people unemployed, in the third quarter of 2022.  

The bill is expected to be published by the end of this year — four years after it was initially adopted, instead of the six months envisioned by hopeful activists in November 2018 at the inaugural GBVF summit.  

At the time, the summit made a series of promises — many of which were not fulfilled by the time the country had the second GBFV summit earlier last month. President Cyril Ramaphosa said of the fight against GBVF: “There is much more that still needs to be done.”  

Read in Daily Maverick: Ramaphosa: Government ‘not even close’ to resolving issues faced by women 

In 2018, Ramaphosa promised more Thuthuzela Care Centres and more sexual offences courts — and, on paper at least, these have been delivered.  

On Thursday, Gungubele said the Cabinet welcomed the opening of the Thuthuzela Care Centre in the Dilokong Hospital at Dilokong Village in Driekop, Limpopo last month. The one-stop facility offers support to victims of GBVF and sexual crimes.   

“The centre is the 62nd to be opened across the country and fulfils the commitment the government made at the 2018 Presidential summit against GBVF to build more of such centres.”  

Female sex workers have experienced various forms of violence from clients, intimate partners and in some cases, police, due to criminalisation.  

In October, the decomposed bodies of six sex workers were found in downtown Joburg, shocking the country and exposing just how hazardous sex work in South Africa is. 

Meanwhile, a national survey found that women sex workers in South Africa are exposed to extremely high levels of violence — with  71% of female sex workers saying they had been exposed to physical violence and 58% saying they had been raped, according to a GroundUp report republished in Daily Maverick.  

The study found sex workers were extremely vulnerable to rape by clients, men in their communities, and their intimate partners. DM



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