Sex workers rally outside Parliament, Cape Town

A group of sex workers and civil society activists rallied outside Parliament in Cape Town yesterday, 23 May, ahead of the elections next week.

The #WhoSpeaksForUs campaign

The group, led by the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), launched a campaign called #WhoSpeaksForUs. The campaign’s aim is to remind political leaders to take into account the diversity of the people in South Africa. There were no politicians in Parliament at the time of the rally. Therefore, it was more of a symbolic gesture rather than a direct communication channel.

The #WhoSpeaksForUs movement advocates the decriminalisation of sex work and demand equal representation for marginalized communities in politics. The movement aims to cultivate a society that treats all its members equally, regardless of race, sexual orientation, or economic standing.

In addition other advocacy groups joining the rally included Gender DynamiX, the Asijiki Coalition for the Decriminalisation of Sex Workers, Triangle Project, Imbawula Queer Podcast, and Gender Equity Unit.

Bill on sex work in South Africa

The current draft bill has been through extensive public consultations. It decriminalises sex work to ensure better protection for sex workers from violence, abuse, and other issues. However, there are concerns around the fact that the bill does not include sufficient stipulations in terms of regulation of sex work. This has caused a delay in passing the bill. The revision of the bill will therefore be the responsibility of the newly elected Parliament.

“Criminalising sex work has not stopped the selling or buying of sex, nor has it been effective. If anything, it has led to higher levels of violence against sex workers. In addition, criminalisation affects predominantly women, with the female sex worker usually being the one who is confronted by law enforcement, but the male client isn’t.” 

Minister Ronald Lamola, Department of Justice and Constitutional Development 

Government published the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill in December 2022. Although the draft bill decriminalises sex work to ensure better protection for sex workers from violence, among other things, it does not make provision for how this change in legislation will impact existing regulations. Therefore, sex workers will still be bound to municipal regulations.

Research challenges conventional perceptions of sex work

Dr Marna Lourens from the Centre for Social Justice at the University of Stellenbosch conducted extensive research on the topic of the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa. Her dissertation provides a critical assessment of transformative justice related to adult sex workers. The research gives insights into the lived experiences of sex workers. It emphasises the need for a more inclusive and compassionate approach to this contentious issue.

“Initially I was doing research into human trafficking. The more I read about women’s experiences in the sex industry, the more I wondered about the issue of choice. As livelihood seekers, women sometimes find themselves in situations where they know they could be pushed into sex work.”

Dr Marna Lourens, University of Stellenbosch

Lourens noted that many South African women choose to do sex work as a way to afford food. The country’s level of poverty and widespread unemployment are factors that play a role in this situation.