Will the World Cup Be A Win for South Africa’s Sex Workers?

Amie Newman

The 2010 World Cup is headed to South Africa next year. As hundreds of thousands of visitors are set to pour into the country with the largest number of HIV-positive people in the world, sex workers see this as a perfect time for the de-criminalization of their work.

One hundred eighty-five more days remain until the 2010 World Cup for soccer begins, in South Africa. 

And there is one segment of the South African population, in particular, that is calling for change

Sex workers in this country are ramping up efforts to push for major reforms before the World Cup games, citing this upcoming period as an optimal time to decriminalize their trade. In an article on the web site AllAfrica.com, Push to Protect Sex Workers During World Cup, Anna Sabisi (not her real name), a sex worker for eight years in South Africa says, "I have seen my colleagues harassed by the police and I have also
experienced that. I would like to see this end before the World Cup."

Sex workers in Cape Town, South Africa are routinely harrassed and arrested by police officers.The head of SWEAT (Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Task Force), an NGO operating in Cape Town, told AllAfrica.com:

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"We have realised that people still enter into sex work, therefore we
say it is better to educate (them) and have their rights protected –
it’s a matter of human rights," added Massawe. "The idea is that
decriminalisation will end the abuse of sex workers by police;
harassment and arrests – though almost never any charges – force people
like Sibisi to operate in risky locations."

In fact, earlier this year, in a case brought by SWEAT in Cape Town, police were found guilty by the High Court of harrassing sex workers because of  these "empty" arrests. 

In a book released last year by SWEAT, Selling Sex in Cape Town, the authors write that almost half of all sex workers in that city (47 percent) were threatened with violence by the police; 28 percent of Cape Town’s approximately 1,300 sex workers were offered their freedom, after arrest, in exchange for sex with a police officer; and 12 percent were raped by a police officer. 

And, of course, the criminalization of sex work not only makes sex workers vulnerable to the authorities, but to their clients as well. There is little leverage for demanding the use of safe sex tools with the threat of police harrassment and arrest hanging over their heads. 

An article in IRIN from May 2009, South Africa: Decriminalising Sex Work Only Half the Battle, discusses these same fears as barriers to accessing necessary reproductive health services and other treatment:

Jankelowitz, of the Reproductive Health and HIV Research Unit (RHRU) at
the University of the Witwatersrand, which runs sex worker-friendly
clinics and outreach programmes, said most sex workers were reluctant
to access health services or report incidents of rape and assault to
the police, fearing both stigma and arrest. 

Health researcher, Marlise Richter, with the South African National AIDS Council agrees that decriminalizing sex work is critical to ensuring sex workers can demand safer sex with clients:

"If it is legal the sex worker will dictate the terms knowing that the
law is on her side, she or he can negotiate with a client for safe sex
which is rarely happening now."

It is estimated that 50 percent of all sex workers in South Africa are infected with HIV. The South African Strategic Plan for HIV/AIDS and STIs for 2007-2011 recommends the decriminalization of sex work based on, according to the plan, recognizing sex workers as a "high risk group" that faces "barriers to accessing HIV prevention and treatment services" and that they "have a right to equal access to interventions for HIV prevention, treatment and support." To that end, the plan also recommends "ensuring a supportive legal environment" for the provison of all HIV/AIDS treatment to sex workers.

Of course, sex workers are a high-risk group around the globe. So why focus on decriminalization in South Africa with such urgency? For one, according to AllAfrica.com, the city expects 450,000 visitors during the World Cup games and undoubtedly sexual activity will increase during that time; sexual activity that will be far from "safe sex" if sex work continues to be criminalized, and sex workers remain unable to access prevention or treatment tools. But most critically, the country is home to approximately 5.5 million people infected with HIV, the largest number of HIV-positive people of any country in the world.  And while the rate of HIV infection has slowed in recent years, South Africa remains among the list of countries with the highest rates of transmission in the world. 

Though the government is not expected to push any new laws through "before next June", there is hope for some positive progression. From the article on AllAfrica.com:

"The South African government and the FIFA local organising committee [Editor’s note: FIFA is the organizing committee for the World Cup]
have also been urged to prioritise safe sex campaigns during the
tournament. Germany’s hosting of the World Cup in 2006 is cited as a
good example. Caroline Keuppers of the University of Munich said condom
distribution was increased by 400,000 and safe sex was promoted more
than a year before kick off."

If it comes down to morals and what we deem, as a global society "morally acceptable" then we can almost certainly see this as a basic human rights issue. Do we decide to deny human beings their right to access health care, to live free from fear, abuse and access to the tools they need to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS because some don’t "like" the work they engage in? If we can save lives, why wouldn’t we?

Topics and Tags:

condoms, HIV prevention, Sex Work

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