Interview: This Bill Says Sex Workers Are Human Beings

Nkere sits inside, looking to the right toward the camera. He wears a blue shirt, orange jacket and rimmed glasses.
Last updated on: 26 February 2024

The South African government says decriminalising sex work will help to break down the barriers faced by sex workers in accessing health and social services. The publishing for comments of the Criminal Law [Sexual Offences and Related Matters] Amendment Bill of 2022, will help to reduce discrimination and stigmatisation of sex workers. We asked five questions about this decrim Bill to Nkere Skosana, Chief Director HIV & AIDS at the Department of Social Development in South Africa, that is championing decriminalisation of sex work.

Why is this Bill so important?

What’s important about this Criminal Law [Sexual Offences and Related Matters] Amendment Bill of 2022 is that it helps to publicly acknowledge that sex workers are here, they are human beings and they must be afforded the same dignity that is afforded to everyone else.

Do you think it will be formally passed?

It’s long overdue and it’s still not there. Publishing it for comments is a big step in the right direction and I’m confident that it will be formally passed eventually. I’m confident that we will be able to mobilise support for its passing, not just from the ruling party but other parties, too. Religious parties might object but we are hoping that we will convince other parties to support it. I will say the African National Congress is behind this because the Deputy Minister of Social Development has been championing this.

What is still needed to get it passed?

Things really moved quicker than expected in this last part of getting the Bill published, especially since the Presidential Summit – there was a strong sentiment in support of decriminalising sex work there. It shows that the advocacy that has taken place over many years has been important. Voices have been heard but people should also not rest on their laurels and stop the work to getting the Bill passed.

There still exists a big need for education because people are still fearful about the implications of this Bill and our job to sensitise people will need to happen internally and externally. I can give you an example: one of the comments in one of the WhatsApp groups was ‘now our girl children won’t have to go to school, they can just become sex workers’. So you can see the stereotyping that happens around sex work. We need to work hard to deal with such sentiments that come from a moral, religious ground. I think this is where the most work will need to take place. That said, there are progressive religious groups that will see this differently: the same way they see homosexuality differently to other more traditional, religious groups.

What has your Department done to prepare for this Bill?

Our Deputy Minister is very passionate about decriminalising sex work so I learnt a lot from the dialogues that the department has been attending. We’ve had several dialogues in different regions of the country. I’ve been preparing provincial coordinators of the department for this Bill, saying ‘we should be looking at this’, ‘we should be working with SWEAT’, ‘we should be telling sex worker rights organisations about various social development programmes available to them, and their children’.

What would you like to say to anyone not yet in support of decrim?

All services, medical and social, that are offered to any other citizen should be offered to sex workers. This Bill will help to deal with issues of discrimination against, and exploitation of, sex workers by different authorities, particularly the police, but will also help sex workers access services such as treatment at clinics, social services for themselves and for their children such as claiming social grants. Because of stigma around sex work, sex workers struggle to access recourse for crimes like rape and this Bill will help them to access legal services.

This is what this Bill is all about: affirming the human rights of sex workers and their children and helping all stakeholders work with sex workers so they can access all services.

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 Section 11 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offenses and Related Matters) Amendment Act, 2007 to decriminalise the sale and purchase of adult sexual services. 

Nkere Skosana is Chief Director HIV & AIDS at the Department of Social Development in South Africa. We spoke with Mr Skosana at the official launch of the 2022 Report on Human Rights Violations against Sex Workers in Southern Africa on 9 December 2022 in Johannesburg.