Decriminalisation of sex work can help prevent HIV: have your say by 31 January

For years, activists and researchers have been advocating for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa


South Africa has a deep history of pain, rooted in gross human rights violations under the apartheid regime. The preamble to the South African Constitution of 1996 identifies human rights, equality and freedom as founding democratic values of  South African society. 

As a young woman, legal scholar, and sex worker advocate, it is heart wrenching to see that even beyond 1996, we still have laws in place which allow for discrimination, stigmatisation, and violence against certain members of society.  

The Sexual Offences Act of 1957 criminalised sex workers and then the Criminal Law (sexual offences and related matters) Amendment Act of 2007 penalised their clients, rendering it a crime for consenting adults to offer or procure sexual services. Primarily, these laws were put in place to end the sex work industry, or rather force a decline in the numbers of people working in this industry. Evidently, this has not been the case.

One of the compelling reasons for entering sex work is that of economic empowerment, in a context increasingly lacking in viable choices. People enter this industry because of resources. Women (including trans women) and men simply want to exercise their right to occupational choice and to find alternative employment.

Sex work is work. First and foremost, it’s an income-generating activity. Sex workers are not criminals, victims, vectors of disease, or sinners. They are workers. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that sex workers support between five and eight other people with their earnings.

Those choosing sex work want to put a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs; they want to provide for their children; they want empowerment, autonomy, and dignity just like any other individual who wakes up to go to work each day. Sex workers often make their own schedules, which is a value add especially for mothers of young children.

As a result of the current laws, which are extremely punitive in nature, sex workers are faced with human rights violations by police officers, health practitioners, clients, and other members of society. Criminalisation leads to stigma and discrimination, which have broad negative implications, including social exclusion, violence, and increased HIV and STIs.

Repeal of the legislation that punishes sex workers would have the greatest impact on the course of HIV epidemics across all settings. A third to a half of HIV infections would be averted in a decade, rendering decriminalisation the single, most effective intervention to avert new HIV infections amongst sex workers, according to epidemiologists

South Africa has a high HIV burden and sex workers are more than 13 times more at risk of contracting HIV than an average female in their reproductive ages. The reasons for this are complex, including existing power dynamics that make it difficult for sex workers to negotiate safer sex. In fact, police often confiscate condoms as evidence of intent to commit a crime. And, because sex workers are criminalised, they’re less inclined to report abuses by clients, intimate partners, police or even health providers. They fear arrest or having complaints dismissed, leaving them more vulnerable. 

Persons selling sex are very aware of the need to protect themselves and their clients from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and are therefore central to achieving positive outcomes in HIV prevention. The continued criminalisation of the sex work industry places severe constraints on sex workers in acting on this and diminishes their abilities to sell sex safely. 

Stigma and discrimination prevent most sex workers from accessing quality HIV prevention and care services. During research and medical trials for HIV prevention persons who sell sex are often the focus for inclusion but fail to benefit from the outcomes, whether it’s updated information or new products because of lack of access to public health facilities. The South African government must increase their political will to aid communities in addressing the HIV burden in our communities, and this can only be facilitated by decriminalising sex workers and their clients.

Supporting decriminalisation does not necessarily translate into support of sex work and the sex work industry. You don’t have to agree with sex work- you just need to agree that no one deserves to have their rights violated.

This includes that everyone should have the freedom to choose their form of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment, as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Ideologies, sexual moralism, and religion are not useful nor are they protective. What is of paramount importance is the realisation and protection of basic human rights of all South African citizens. If we are ever going to truly control the HIV epidemic by 2030, South Africa must allow adult sex work and revoke the outdated, authoritative laws, which are currently up for repeal. 

Have your say on the Bill before 31 January 2023. 

Email your submissions to:

Liyema Somnono is a 2022 AVAC Fellow and advocate for HIV prevention for sex workers.


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