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The touchy issue of sex work cannot be overlooked

Article as it appeared in The Weekend Post 14-07-2012

The issue of sex work is a touchy subject for many, no one wants to even acknowledge the social scourge that has plagued our moral value system for centuries.

As a society the majority of us would rather sweep this issue under the carpet and pretend it does not exist, unless it comes knocking on the door of our own home.

We use our moral upper hand to look down on those exploiting their bodies for financial gain without considering the underlying reasons as to why they are on that street corner selling sex in the first place.

South Africa is often a conservative society when it comes to controversial issues such as sex work and when the ANC Women’s League put this issue on the agenda ahead of the ANC policy conference we came under huge fire, from many sectors, even within our own organisation.

Many suggest we are not ready to open this debate as it speaks to the moral fibre of our society which is, at times, questionable when you consider the astronomically high levels of rape and child abuse in our communities. The ANCWL does not in any way condone the practice of sex work. However we do understand that in many instances people are forced into sex work as they feel they have no other options available to them.

With high levels of unemployment and the extremely slow pace of economic transformation many feel this is the only way they can feed their families and survive. Some resort to drugs to numb the pain of what they’re doing, others are fed drugs to keep them dependent on their \"keepers\" or \"pimps\". The reality of the situation is with the law as it currently stands, these already vulnerable men and women are wide open to further exploitation and abuse by police who are not there to protect them but to punish them for their crimes. Many sex workers have reported abuse and even rape at the hands of police.

We also have to deal with the reality of HIV/Aids and other sexually-transmitted diseases that sex workers are exposed to due to the nature of their work and because they cannot force a man to wear a condom, who is going to come to their aid if they complain?

They also have problems accessing health care facilities with many who work in health care prejudicing them, some are even refused treatment. Sex work is currently fully criminalised but it is not proving to be any kind of deterrent as it is still taking place. Research conducted in Australia has shown that no law change, criminalisation, decriminalisation or partial decriminalisation has done anything to change the number of sex workers operating under the different systems.

I ask what good does it do to arrest a sex worker, put her in jail, give her a criminal record and then send her back onto the street into the exact same environment you found her in? This only makes it harder for her to be rehabilitated and find another job.

The ANCWL has not come up with a concrete plan on how to deal with this issue, but decriminalisation as to protect the sex worker is an option we are looking at.

It is extremely complex and extremely sensitive, often there are children involved and there is no easy answer or solution that will satisfy everyone. But we have to look at the socioeconomic issues that drive this underground industry. Instead of persecuting those involved in sex work we need to try to find solutions to these underlying issues.

The gender commission agreed that more discussion around this topic needs to take place; they proposed a gender summit where this issue will form part of the agenda. Another proposal from the commission was an academy for vulnerable people who need to be equipped with basic life and literacy skills to enable them to get out of this field of work. This is not something we can rush into as a society; there are too many elements to consider coming up with a quick fix. The ANCWL’s main focus with this discussion is to ensure that we embrace the dignity of these women and give them options. We do not want to encourage sex work but we understand that the current laws criminalising it are not stopping it from continuing and are opening these women up to further exploitation.

Article by: Troy Martens
ANC Women`s League National Spokesperson