Symposium told decriminalising sex work will stop cops from taking advantage of sex workers
Decriminalising sex work will go a long way towards protecting workers against police abuse and would also aid in the fight against human trafficking.
This was the view expressed by several delegates at the second annual sex work symposium organised by the KwaZulu-Natal legislature at the Olive Convention Centre in Durban on Friday.
Sex workers and sex worker organisations detailed the abuse and harassment they suffer, especially at the hands of law enforcement officers.
“People at the top don't really know what's happening on the ground,” said Lungile, a sex worker from Pongola.
“They have all these laws and guidelines for police to follow but at the end of the day they must be executed at ground level. That's where they do the opposite and I will be powerless to do anything,” Lungile said.
Thembakazi from the Eastern Cape works as a sex worker in Margate.
She said she and her friends were once picked up by policemen who drove around with them before dropping them off around midnight at another location.
“We’ve had enough of the abuse from Margate police. We left our homes because of poverty. We are trying our best to raise our children. We can’t keep asking for money for underwear and sanitary pads even when we're over 21. How many sex workers need to die before our screams are loud enough, before tears are wiped away,” she said.
We can no longer shy away from the fact that sex work does exist. It won't help to pretend as if we don't know that there is sex workDudu Dlamini , SWEAT
Constance Mathe, co-ordinator of Asijiki — a coalition of organisations advocating for the decriminalisation of sex work — said she believed that decriminalising sex work is the way forward.
She said the people who break the law are not sex workers but people in suits.
“There are sex workers and then there are criminals who hide in plain sight and they should be identified as such. Like the state lawyer who requested payment from the sex workers when they were arrested in Bethal, Mpumalanga, about a month ago. Those are the real criminals, not sex workers.”
Dudu Dlamini, from the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), said the reason there are so many criminal elements in the sector is because of people who take advantage of the fact that sex work is illegal.
“Once sex work is formalised we believe that criminals who are involved in the smuggling of some of the women in the sex industry will have no place to operate. Once it's formalised, no one will be able to abuse us because there will be laws regulating our work,” she said.
“Government should lead the way in this discussion of ensuring that we're decriminalising sex work. We can no longer shy away from the fact that sex work does exist. It won't help to pretend as if we don't know that there is sex work.”
Brig CS Ngubane, from the office of the provincial police commissioner, said as much as the call to decriminalise sex work is understandable, police are still required to do their job — albeit within the confines of the law — because it’s still illegal under current legislation.
She said offenders should not be taken to the holding cells but given notices in the form of a J534, a warning essentially. She said eThekwini was leading other districts in terms of those cases in the last financial year.
“With 1247 cases, eThekwini was the leading contributor of such notices in the last financial year, followed by Ugu district with 710 cases. The current stats, which are not yet verified, have Ugu with 334 followed by eThekwini with 319,” she said.
*The surnames of the sex workers are withheld to protect their identity.
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