2/23/2010 2:19:08 PM
In the eyes of many, 2010 is a year for Africa. The 2010 World Cup will be the first in history hosted on the continent. From the time of the historic announcement of South Africa’s successful bid, many neighbouring countries have been working towards improving their infrastructure and making sure their citizens are ready to take advantage of the Cup’s economic opportunities.
Sex workers have not lagged behind in preparing to take their share of World Cup profits. However, this opportunity is likely to come with dangers of harassment, abuse and discrimination under the current legal framework in South Africa, which offers them little or no protection.
For Maria Mubanga,* the road to sex work was not an easy one. As a child, she never dreamt of becoming a sex worker. The death of her parents when she was 11 years old left her with the financial burden of looking after siblings and relatives. When a woman promised a job in a South African hotel, she was quick to pack her bags.
She only later discovered the “job” was selling her body, but said she felt forced to stay knowing her family depended on the income. It’s a job that comes with its own stigma and often puts those that ply the trade at risk of abuse, HIV and assault not just by clients but also by police.
Sisonke is an organisation providing life skills, HIV outreach and other services to sex workers. Sisonke’s Jacob Motsamai said that because sex work is currently illegal in South Africa, sex workers have little legal recourse to abuse by clients, police or brothel owners. The organisation is advocating for the decriminalisation of the industry in order to promote regulation that Motsamai said will benefit both sex workers and their clients.
“We want full decriminalisation of sex work,” he said. “It will mean that sex work will be recognised as work and that the sex workers will enjoy the protection of labour and occupational health laws.”
“At the moment, most sex workers are exploited by many, including journalists that come to get information from the sex workers and benefit out of it while sex workers do not benefit.” he added. “There are times when journalists come to interview the sex workers and get photographs with promises that they would disguise their voices or not use their full photos, but when the articles are published, the opposite happens.”
During a recent review of the law, sex workers organised to make submissions to the South African Law Reform Commission in support of decriminalisation. These submissions drew upon their experiences of the law, police and working conditions.
Motsamai said fear among the sex workers is growing as the World Cup approaches as they are scared police will crack down on sex workers to “clean up the cities,” putting them behind bars for the duration of the sporting event.
On the other hand, Babalwa Makawula, co-founder of another organisation reaching out to vulnerable and exploited women and girls, the New Life Centre, questions whether decriminalisation is a solution.
“I do not see how decriminalising sex work will help sex workers because I have difficulties in understanding who is going to help whom?” she asked. “When a sex worker is going for business in a room, she does not go there with her employer or someone who can protect her from abuse from her client.”
“Engaging in sex is not work in itself because when you are doing it, you do not feel okay. You have no pride in what you doing and there is no fulfilment,” Makawula argued. “When you are working, you must feel the passion that goes with that work. Sex work does not give that feeling to most women.” She advocated not for legalising sex work, but for prioritising the economic empowerment of sex workers through skill development in the run-up to the World Cup.
Marlise Richter, from the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics at Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand said sex workers have generally been overlooked in South Africa. According to Richter, the continued criminalisation of the industry continues to fuel the HIV epidemic and disregard sex workers’ human rights.
She adds that from the time the sex work reform process started in 1997 when the South African Law Reform Commission was charged with investigating sexual offences relating to children, the commission has not yet come up with the final solution to sex work reform. Instead, the commission has shied away from releasing draft legislation on the matter and opted to suggest four ways the law can approach sex work, namely total criminalisation, partial criminalisation, non-decriminalisation or decriminalisation, or regulation – each with a different meaning and impact on sex workers.
Meanwhile, discourse around the World Cup and sex work itself remains highly stigmatising, often painting sex workers as carriers of HIV, argued Richter, who called the argument short-sighted, moralistic and skewed by prejudice as it ignores the fact that both parties in sexual transactions should take responsibility for practicing safer sex.
“Ultimately, the World Cup and the current law reform process provide an important opportunity to recognise the rights of sex workers,” Richter said. She added that it is vital that human rights and women’s advocates, as well as the media, seize the strategic opening to promote understanding and insight into one of society’s most vulnerable and marginalised groups.
*Not her real name
Perpetual Sichikwenkwe is a writer from Zambia. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, produced during a “Business Unusual” workshop.