Sudden Ditch of the Sex Worker Decriminalization Bill an Unwarranted Travesty of Justice
– Yonela Sinqu and Nelson Dlamini
Sisonke National Sex Work Movement, the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) together with Asijiki Coalition and other advocacy groups are disheartened at the decision by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development to delay the decriminalization of sex work.
The initial announcement on 30 November 2022 to finally take the Bill for public comment after years of consultations with members of the sex worker movement was welcomed and displayed a level of progress in addressing the divisive punitive laws fueling inequality among sex workers and the general population.
The announcement restored, to an extent, some confidence in the Constitution by sex worker movements. However, the sudden decision by the Ministry without consultation, to halt process to decriminalize sex work is a clear lack of commitment to address gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF); equal access to healthcare and justice; economic freedom and freedom of choice and association.
The criminalization of sex work has encouraged some law enforcement officials to abuse sex workers sexually and physically and none of them can be brought to account for their actions. Sex Workers have long lost confidence in the justice system, and that confidence can only be restored once sex work is decriminalized.
South Africa was the first African country to develop a National Sex Worker HIV, TB and STIs Plan coordinated by SANAC however, efforts to implement the Plans (there are now two) have been hindered by the criminalization of sex work. To avoid potential wasteful expenditure of resources, criminalisation is key, lest the Plans are deemed as a tick-a-box exercise.
In 2016, the then Deputy President and Chairperson of SANAC, Hon. Cyril Ramaphosa, launched the first-ever National Sex Worker Plan for the period 2016 to 2019 and presented the leader of the Sex Worker Sector, Ms Kholi Buthelezi, with a sunflower as a symbol of his solidarity and commitment to reforms in the sex work trade, which include decriminalisation.
In March 2019 President Ramaphosa committed to the decriminalization of sex work at the signing of the Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Declaration. The President stated that, he “…will work with all relevant stakeholders to develop policy around the decriminalization of sex work.” However, the Sex Worker Sectors feels betrayed when the Justice Department, without consultation, decides to set aside the Bill.
The Sector also noted that the governing party (African National Congress) has in three of its conferences highlighted decriminalisation of sex work its resolutions, but nothing has been done to implement that resolution.
Government has made the strides to rectify decades of human rights violations by promising to prioritise the decriminalisation of sex work, however, icing the bill is a huge regress from the gains already achieved.
The Sector calls on all support of organizations with vested interest in protecting human rights and ensuring the protection of the Constitution and Bill of Rights through their implementation. The criminalization of sex work is and has been a long-standing human rights violation which should not be ignored.