Study estimates 153,000 sex workers active in South Africa

Study estimates 153,000 sex workers active in South AfricaA University of California San Francisco study to be released today is expected to show HIV prevalence rates among sex workers of between 40 and 70 percent. (File photo)

First of its kind research released yesterday shows that South Africa is home to about 153,000 sex workers as a new plan aims to decriminalise one of the world’s oldest professions.

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To protest abuses at the hands of police, sex worker organisations plan to march on the office of the police oversight body, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) on 3 March, which marks International Sex Worker Rights Day
To protest abuses at the hands of police, sex worker organisations will picket the offices of police oversight body, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), on 3 March, which marks International Sex Worker Rights Day

Commissioned by the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC), the research used data gathered from sex worker interviews in 12 sites nationwide to estimate the country’s sex worker population.

Of the 153,000 estimated sex workers active in the country, about 8,000 are men and about another 6,000 are transgender, according to the research led by the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT).

The study found that sex was for sale in a wide range of places including brothels, at least one adult store and via local Internet sex sites.

New HIV prevention science to be piloted among sex workers

The research is aimed at helping SANAC roll out the country’s first national HIV care and treatment plan for sex workers. Unveiled yesterday, the plan aims to provide better prevention and care services for not only HIV, but also sexually transmitted infections tuberculosis among sex workers and their families.

At the 2014 Southern Africa HIV Clinicians Conference, SANAC CEO Fareed Abdullah quoted unpublished research indicating that HIV prevalence rates among some South African sex workers could be more than 70 percent.

A July 2014 study published in the international medical journal The Lancet estimated that at least six percent of all new HIV infections in the country are linked to sex work.

South Africa is just one of many countries in the region looking to use money from the international financing mechanism the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria to address vulnerable populations where HIV prevalence rates remain high.

“If HIV is about sex, where else should we start looking (to address it) but in sex work?” said Fareed, adding that the US Centres for Disease Control is currently funding a large study to gauge HIV prevalence rates among sex workers in major South African cities.

To address high rates of infections, SANAC’s new plan aims to pilot the latest HIV prevention science among sex workers. As part of a pilot study, some HIV-negative sex workers will be offered pre-exposure prophylaxis, or antiretrovirals (ARVs) to prevent HIV infection. Those living with HIV will be offered ARVs as soon as they are diagnosed as part of the pilot in an approach commonly known as ‘test and treat.’

Renewed push for decriminalisation of sex work

Like the country’s past two national strategic plans, SANAC’s National Strategic Plan for HIV Prevention, Care and Treatment for Sex Workers also pushes for the decriminalisation of the “world’s oldest profession.”[quote float= right]“If decriminalisation is to go through, it’s important that it has the majority of support from the people of South Africa”

“Sex work is criminalised and that has made us more vulnerable,” Buthelezi told Health-e News. “Police rape us and, if we are arrested, they will need sexual favours in order for us to be released.”

If South Africa moved to decriminalise sex work, it could look at regulating the profession and create a safer working environment, argue advocates like Buthelezi.

But the fight for decriminalisation is likely to be a long one for sex workers.

Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development John Jeffery said the Law Reform Commission is currently nearing the end of its long-running review of legislation criminalising sex work. The commission may then submit written recommendations to amend the law to the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development. The minister then could move to table these before Cabinet and then Parliament.

Changing the law will need strong public support, Jeffery cautioned.

“We are on the one hand a very conservative country,” he said. “If decriminalisation is to go through, it’s important that it has the majority of support from the people of South Africa.” – Health-e News.

An abridged, edited version of this story first appeared in the 13 January editions of The Star and the Daily News newspapers.