Today I learnt that the South African Law Reform Commissions (SALRC) is going to publish its report regarding sex work. Late last year, the SALRC and the Deputy Minister of Justice presented in Parliament, after several consecutive Women’s Parliament reports have demanded the decriminalisation of sex work.
This report released today is a result of a process that started 20 years ago. Twenty years ago our law reflected a fledgeling democracy, finding its feet and trying to redress past discrimination. During these twenty years the SALRC research team on the project has changed, and so has our legal framework.
Many laws have been passed advancing human rights, respecting women’s rights to make choices about their bodies and reproduction, and providing for the protection of LGBTIQ+ people.
But, the SALRC report does not reflect these advancements. The presentation in Parliament months ago reflected sexism in the state’s analysis if issues, and cast women as victims. The bottom line is that a law is not going to stop sex work from happening, but a law can decriminalise sex work, making it safer for sex workers to report abuses against them, and safer for sex workers to seek the healthcare they need so that they and their clients can remain healthy.
It was clear at that time that the SALRC was leaning towards remaining with full criminalisation, or partial decriminalisation. This is despite many presentations from sex workers and sex workers organisations saying that the law in its current form:
- legitimises harassment of sex workers by police,
- restricts their access to make choices about their careers and bodies,
- restricts sex workers access to healthcare,
- makes it more dangerous to practice sex work and thus increases the vulnerability of sex workers to gender based violence, and
- serves as an arbitrary form of labour discrimination.
Our democracy is supposed to hear the voices of those affected by law, and to take those voices into account when making and amending legislation. Our government claims it wants to protect women from violence, and prevent the norms that encourage violence.
But it appears that the Department of Justice and the SALRC are deaf to the voices of sex workers. It appears that they are fine with the abuses that sex workers continue to endure because of bad law. There seems to be no other explanation for the decision of the SALRC to ignore research that shows the evidence that decriminalisation is the right choice for South Africa.
I support law that protects women and vulnerable groups from abuse, promotes their right to access basic services and human rights. A law that does not advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work does not do this. The duty of our law is to guide us towards the values of the Constitution – respect for dignity, respect for women, respect for LGBTIQ+ people, respect for choice. The duty of our law is not to make judgements about people’s choices, unless those choices cause direct harm to others.
I have explained before that I support sex work decriminalisation in order to respect the right to dignity of sex workers in South Africa. I support it from an informed perspective from sex work led organisations, and also from the evidence of research, and a commitment to human rights.
There is no evidence to suggest that partial criminalisation works. What is known is that it endangers women further by driving sex work underground, enables violence against women and girls and decreased access to health care.
Hundreds of sex workers have died whilst the SALRC and the Department of Justice have taken their time preparing this report. These deaths occur because the law does not protect sex workers.
I along with many organisations and sex workers across the country, call on the Department of Justice to review this decision and to listen to South African sex workers requests for the decriminalisation of sex work.