Pretoria – Samantha Ashleen April did not get to celebrate Women’s Day.
April, a Cape Town sex worker, was picked up by a male and female client on August 9 and later found strangled to death.
The women are routinely picked up by police, driven around in their vans, raped, assaulted or kept in cells without access to legal representation or their families.
Their possessions, including antiretrovirals in the case of those who are HIV-positive, are taken, resulting in them defaulting on their treatment regime.
The problem, according to sex worker and Sweat human rights and lobbying officer Nosipho Vidima, is that sex workers have been waiting 19 years for promised legislative reform to ensure they enjoy their constitutional rights to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, freedom from violence and the right to bodily integrity, among others.
An emotional Vidima was among sex workers who went to Parliament this week to plead with MPs on the multi-party women’s caucus to take up their call for the decriminalisation of sex work.
The high incidence of HIV among sex workers, despite government provision of prophylactics and ARVs, was a direct result of their vulnerability to rape by police, she argued.
More than this, sex workers were 18 times more likely to be murdered than other women.
“You give me ARVs etc, but I still go out on street – I’m on the street and dead, healthy, but dead,” Vidima said.
Preventative measures were useless if police continued to rape sex workers, rendered more vulnerable by the criminal status of their occupation, she said.
But while the Commission on Gender Equality gave its backing to decriminalisation, as did MPs, the SA Law Reform Commission, which was asked to investigate the legal landscape relating to sexual offences and propose legislative and non-legislative alternatives, questioned whether it would have the desired results.
The commission’s lead researcher on the project, Deliene Clark, said countries that had tried decriminalisation were increasingly recognising the intrinsic “harm and exploitation” that went with prostitution.
In the Netherlands, the government was buying up windows in the famed red light districts after recognising that its permissive legal framework was resulting in an increase in trafficking of women for the sex trade.
Violence continued “unabated” despite decriminalisation of prostitution because it was not possible to “neatly excise” it from other illegal activities, Clark said.
The socio-economic factors that concentrated crime in areas of poverty, inequality and unemployment continued to breed violence against women.
Research had shown that while just 10 percent of men made up the clientele of the sex trade, this group was especially violent and prone to other illegal activities.
Clark was subjected to fierce criticism from MPs in the women’s caucus, who accused her of relying on research from developed countries which didn’t apply in Africa.
But she said she was unable to defend herself because the commission’s report had been handed to the Justice Department and it was up to minister Michael Masutha to release it.
Giving details of its contents would be equivalent to her releasing it, Clark said.
Vidima complained that Sweat had made numerous applications under the Promotion of Access to Information Act to be given the commission’s report, without receiving a response.
Johan de Lange, specialist state law adviser on legislative development, said the delay in the release of the report, which was first submitted towards the end of 2014, was a result of the Justice Department being taken “unawares” by its recommendations, which were not what had been anticipated.
But its release was “imminent”, he said, and, once it became public, he expected the debate to “grow wings”.