Johannesburg, South Africa — Linda is a small, soft-spoken woman. She takes out her passport and in a matter-of-fact voice explains, “This thing reminds me of my journey, from the time my husband died.”
Linda, who asked that her last name not be used, is a provincial media co-ordinator of Sisonke, the South African sex worker movement. She was one of a long list of speakers at South Africa’s first ever, national symposium on sex work held in Johannesburg recently, which brought together officials from the South African National Aids Council, the Department of Health, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and non-government organizations, including the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) and Sisonke.
As Linda told her story, conference delegates sat in rapt silence. Occasional murmurs of empathy rippled through the room as she explained that although she had hoped to finish school and go to university, her family circumstances had prevented it.
“My father was a peasant farmer, he had two wives and we were 15 children,” she said of growing up in Zimbabwe. “He did not have enough money to send all of us to school. My mother was the second wife, and so my brothers from the first wife were the ones to go to school. I could only go up to Grade 9.”
At the age of 19, Linda married. Her husband was a medic in the Zimbabwean army. Six years after their marriage he was sent on a peacekeeping mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo where he sustained severe head injuries in a plane crash, leading to his death.
“I was only 25,” said Linda. “I had two sons. We had a fully equipped seven-room house in the city, but my husband’s family wanted this for themselves. They said I should marry my husband’s brother, because this was according to their culture and tradition.”
Linda was adamant that she was not married “to the whole family”. The only solution she saw was to leave Zimbabwe for South Africa where she could earn a living and avoid the pressure from her in-laws.
But first, she had to get a passport. “When my husband was still alive he used to say, ‘I don’t want you to work for the family. I will work for you and the kids. And I don’t want you to have a travel document, you’ll be here with the family and I will always come back to you.’
“I had to go against his wishes to get this document,” said Linda. “So every time I look at it, I feel like I have broken his wish, as if I was betraying him, but there was nothing I could do because I wanted to support the family.”
The following year, Linda applied for a passport. “At that time, things were very difficult in our country. You needed a lot of money to get a travel document – and it took two years. I applied for it in 2006 and I got it in 2008.”
“When I came to South Africa, I was dropped in Musina,” said Linda. “I didn’t know anyone. I was wondering how I would find someone who wants a domestic worker. I was sitting with my bag next to me, then this truck driver approached me.”
In a country where more than five million people are living with HIV, and sex workers account for one in five new HIV infections, public health workers say it is imperative that South Africans engage in a frank and honest conversation about sex work. Surveys in South Africa’s major cities show an HIV prevalence rate of between 44 and 69 percent among sex workers, whereas in the general population the prevalence is around 17 percent.
However, because South Africa criminalises sex work, bringing with it a general stigma, there is little incentive for sex workers to seek out health services at government clinics where they are treated with disdain or worse.
The World Health Organisation identifies three key risks for those involved in sex work:
Forced sex increases the risk of transmission of HIV due to physical trauma.
The threat of violence limits the ability of people to negotiate safer sex.
Disclosure of HIV test results or the disclosure of a person’s HIV status may also entail an increased risk of violence.
Sex workers generally are well-educated when it comes to safer sex and HIV prevention, but their outlaw status puts them in a weak position if they have to argue with clients to persuade them to use condoms. Furthermore, police frequently harass outdoor sex workers – and if women are found to be carrying condoms, the police use this as evidence that they are sex workers.
Under current South African law both sex workers and their clients are guilty of an offence. However, a report by the South African Women’s Legal Centre published in August 2012 that documents the experiences of more than 300 sex workers found that 70 percent experienced some form of abuse at the hands of the police.
This was acknowledged by the deputy minister of police, Makhotso “Maggie” Sotyu, who, in her address to the National Sex Work Symposium said she was moved by the many complaints of police abuse that she had received in a recent meeting with sex workers.
“You can’t let a police officer rape any person, let alone a sex worker,” she said, adding that where police used unnecessary force, these incidents should be treated as criminal acts.
While living outside the law makes sex workers more vulnerable to abuse from police, clients and pimps, it also places a burden on the country’s stretched police services. Sex work activists argue that policing the laws that criminalise sex work absorbs significant resources that, given South Africa’s high crime levels, could better be deployed elsewhere.
According to the executive director of Sweat, Sally-Jean Shackleton, “targeting women with low incomes trying to earn money for their families, police are being told to invade privacy, to make impossible judgements and to devote endless time to surveillance. Of course, there are very few convictions, and instead the police feel that such demeaning rules justify their emotional and physical abuse of sex workers, as evidenced by endless stories received by our organisation”.
In a tacit acknowledgement of the futility of criminalising sex work, the deputy minister said that sex work was a reality that was “here to stay” and that the South African police had more “serious challenges than running around after sex workers”.
The first country in the world that has recognised sex work as a reality to be regulated like all other work is New Zealand, which decriminalised sex work in 2003. In Australia, the state of New South Wales has a similar approach.
In New Zealand, decriminalisation – as distinct from legalisation – resulted in the following changes:
It was no longer an offence to procure sex, run a brothel, solicit, or to live off the earnings of sex work.
Registration of sex workers ceased; it was replaced by licensing of people in a position of control over sex workers in a business of three or more workers.
A ban on people with drug or prostitution convictions working in brothels was removed.
At the same time, harsher penalties were introduced for a number of offences. These included being the client of a sex worker under the age of 18; coercing someone into sex work or keeping them there; and tougher penalties against any sex worker, client or manager who fails to promote safe sex.
According to Tim Barnett, a New Zealand member of parliament who helped champion the legislation change in 2003, “the sky did not fall in”.
He argues that both police and sex workers reported a “better relationship”, easing the solving of sex work-related crime, without the corruption temptations created by a criminalized environment. There has also been no evidence of an increase in the number of sex workers and brothels, but there have been cases where brothel owners who abuse sex workers and violent clients have been prosecuted.
“Five years after the law was changed, a major statutory review committee, chaired by the former police commissioner and backed up by extensive research, reported in 2008 that the real impact would take many more years but that the law was working as intended,” said Barnett in documents he has presented to Sweat.
Those who oppose the decriminalisation option argue that sex work demeans the dignity of women and that options such as the “Swedish model” – which criminalises only the client and outlaws pimps and brothels – are better options.
According to activists in Sweat and Sisonke, these arguments ignore the indignity of poverty and what it means to lack education for work that pays more than a minimum wage, in an environment of high unemployment.
They also argue that South Africa’s current legal framework is not in line with international treaties to which it is a signatory.
For Linda and other sex workers, the issue is simple: “This is how I feed my family. All we want is for our work to be recognised as work.”