Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) has welcomed the decision by the African National Congress to fully decriminalise sex work in SA.
The announcement was made at a media briefing on the party’s social transformation commission resolutions on Wednesday, the last day of the 54th ANC national elective conference at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Soweto, Johannesburg.
Decriminalisation would see criminal penalties being removed for sex workers as well as those making use of their services.
The policy borrows from New Zealand’s legislative framework. New Zealand is currently the only country to have decriminalised sex work.
Sex work is currently a criminal offence in SA and the country has some of the highest percentages of sexual violence in the world – particularly in the sex work industry – with many cases left unreported for a variety of reasons.
“The ANC now joins many other institutions who are concerned about the high levels of violence experienced by the women, men and transgender people who sell sex and who have acknowledged that South Africa’s current legal framework creates a context where this violence can occur with impunity,” Sweat’s Sally Shackleton said in a statement.
Shackleton said decriminalisation was a step in the right direction and that the model was one that would respect and protect the human rights of sex workers.
“Changing the law is a huge symbolic act of inclusion – it won’t stop stigma overnight, but it will make a significant contribution to change,” Shackleton said.
Despite the announcement by the ruling party, Sweat is treading with caution.
“We remain cautiously optimistic as this is not the first time that the ANC [has] expressed support for the decriminalisation of sex work,” read the statement.
Commission for Gender Equality’s Javu Baloyi told News24 that with decriminalisation, sex workers would operate in a safer space without being arrested or victimised and harassed by police.
Sex workers would also be able to better access health facilities, social workers and doctors.
“Most workers are operating in the shadows because of diseases, abuse, pimps and fear of police, so this would mean that they would be able to operate with a legal backing,” he said.
‘SA not a religious state’
He appealed to South African churches to not make this a religious matter as it was a matter of principle.
“They shouldn’t discriminate. South Africa is a constitutional democracy, not a religious state.”
Baloyi also argued that the decriminalisation of sex work represented a chance for the rehabilitation of those sex workers who took on the job involuntarily, such as young people who used sex work to escape being married off or domestic violence, he said.
Sweat said it would continue to provide stigma-free health and legal services to sex workers.
Reaction to the announcement was varied on social media.