Interview: The decrim Bill gives us the power to practice our rights

Constance Mathe
Last updated on: 05 March 2024

After a decades-long lobby of thousands of activists, decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa has come close to reality. The Criminal Law [Sexual Offences and Related Matters] Amendment Bill of 2022 which decriminalises sex work, is currently published for comments.

Constance Mathe, National Coordinator of the Asijiki Coalition actually submitted it in Parliament. Her role in getting the Bill published, she told Aidsfonds, was motivated by not wanting herself or any of her peers to ever experience horrific violation of rights again.

Get us to stand together

“For people who work in a brothel, this is where the exploitation is most severe: sex workers are forced to work while menstruating, perform for fetishes they don’t want to perform for, they can’t take leave even when they are very pregnant. If the Bill is passed, it will help to protect them. We as sex workers are victims of gender-based violence, of femicide, of sexual harassment, police brutality, stigma and discrimination. The Bill will give sex workers the power to practice and exercise our rights.

As the national coordinator of Asijiki, what I’m trying to do is get us to stand together. We didn’t push for decrim alone, we did it with Asijiki members. They did it with us. If someone runs to a feminist space, these members will ask him ‘what happened to decriminalisation?’. If someone runs to a LGBTI rights space they will ask him, ‘when is decriminalisation happening?’. This is the pressure that finally resulted in the decrim Bill being published.”

Pressure on government

“We put so much pressure on government, we gathered so much evidence of violations. Last year we actually went to the Department of Justice. We asked them straight out: ‘What is the problem, are you going to decriminalise sex work or not?’. They said one of the problems is that people are raising the issue of child-trafficking. We explained very well that it doesn’t encourage that. One of the main points of decriminalising sex work is this: maybe someone doesn’t choose for a person to become a sex worker but if someone chooses to be one, I would rather support them in that journey than let them do it alone.”

Speaking from the ground level

“I was raped several times by my stepfather and had two children because of him. I tried to speak out and was threatened with death. I went to the police and was told I was provoking my parents. I ran away from home and on the street I found sex workers and started working as a sex worker. I ran away to Johannesburg and later I went to Cape Town. I was miserable but I got money to pay rent for a room. After my fourth pregnancy – a condom had broken with a client – I had a miscarriage in 2008 and when I went to the hospital I was sterilised without my knowledge. Recently I started having heavy bleeding and when I went to a gynaecologist he told me I had been sterilised. I remembered the people in the hospital back in 2008 saying to me ‘you can’t keep having babies and I remember someone saying ‘we have a solution for you’ – but I was coming out of a procedure and everything was blurry and I didn’t ask more questions. So you see what criminalisation has done for me? People think the thing I am doing is not legal. This is what has happened in my life. People have silenced me.

If I remember my struggle, what I’ve been through… For me sex work is the only job where I am my own boss, I am in control of my own life, my own body. I managed to go get my kids and they are living with me. They are in high school, I pay their fees, I own my house. This is me speaking from the ground level.”

‘Send us your draft’

“In January 2022 I got a call from the department to say ‘send us your draft of the Bill’. In March, we started consultations. That really started moving things. It was such a complicated process, there were so many delays but I was the one who actually submitted it in Parliament. And when we got the news that it had been published I was in the office and I screamed!”

Asijiki Coalition for the Decriminalisation of Sex Work is a group of sex workers, activists, advocates and human rights defenders who advocate for law reform for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa. We spoke with Constance Mathe, national coordinator of Asijiki, at the official launch of the 2022 Report on Human Rights Violations against Sex Workers in Southern Africa on 9 December 2022, where she was key note speaker. On 30 November 2022 the South African Cabinet approved the publishing of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill of 2022 regarding the decriminalisation of sex work for public comments. The Bill repeals the Sexual Offences Act of 1957 and also repeals Section 11 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offenses and Related Matters) Amendment Act, 2007 to decriminalise the sale and purchase of adult sexual services.