MyChamp: South African policy maker putting sex workers’ rights on the agenda

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Last updated on: 20 February 2024

Champions for sex workers’ rights are key in protecting human rights. To celebrate their work, we spoke with Jabulile Sibeko, key populations technical advisor at the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC). She elaborates on the importance of bringing together stakeholders and maintaining momentum in pursuing sex workers’ rights.

I use every opportunity I get to talk and educate people about sex workers’ rights. Amongst my colleagues, everyone has been sensitised so that is fine. Family and friends are also supportive, but most people still believe it’s a sin to do sex work. But with more and more education, it will change. I don’t think people are aware of how complex sex work is, what sex workers’ experiences are, and if you care about people, you can’t turn away from sex workers.

The foundation of it all is human rights and you can’t have human rights if there aren’t sex worker rights because everybody’s rights are equal.

Bringing stakeholders together to improve sex workers’ lives

Most of my working career I’ve worked with key populations: sex workers, people who inject drugs, men who have sex with men. All along, my roles at different organisations tried to get the health system to be more accepting of key populations. In my current role, we try to get various stakeholders to engage on sex workers’ rights and decriminalisation of sex work. It is a long process, filled with managing misperceptions and peoples’ conservative views and ideologies. We convene stakeholders, advocate, draft policies, consult across the provinces, collect commentary on policies, consolidate comments, educate people on different aspects of the law. It is so important to sensitise people on these processes to get them to participate. We were also part of the development of the National Sex Worker HIV, TB and STI Plan 2019 – 2022 and we were the first country in Africa to have this. Ultimately, by convening stakeholders, keeping momentum on policies, and overseeing implementation of programmes by our partners, we improve sex workers’ lives. Our partners’ programmes focus on economic empowerment and biomedical interventions. But critical to any biomedical intervention are programmes that sensitise healthcare workers to sex workers’ needs because so many sex workers face discrimination at the hands of nurses and doctors in clinics.

A people-centred approach

This work is people-centred and what it comes down to is being able to see a difference in someone’s life. That’s what’s important and that’s what motivates me. Seeing someone who has started HIV treatment for example, seeing those positive outcomes. Even though my work is at the level of policy and convening stakeholders and so on… it’s still good when we do site visits of our partners to meet the beneficiaries, hear about their experiences, and hear about how their lives have changed.

It also makes me very proud to go to conferences and speak about these topics and know people are taking me seriously. That just wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago. So no, it’s not all doom and gloom. The fact that we’re at conferences talking about sex workers’ rights, the fact that we’re here now talking about sex worker rights, the fact that we’re coming up with plans, trying to get sex worker access to services, mobile clinics, and speaking to government departments about them… that’s progress. Programmes like Hands Off need to be scaled up because they increase visibility of sex workers and show them as empowered and needing their rights protected, instead of judgement.

Human rights at the core of it all

The foundation of it all is human rights and you can’t have human rights if there aren’t sex workers’ rights because everybody’s rights are equal. Working together to protect sex workers is important because if you work in silos, you won’t be effective. If we gather all the different organisations, different government departments and recognise these rights, there will be more impact. In health services, in the police, there will be some sort of respect. It’s hard to do this, to get everyone to talk to each other, to talk in one voice but if we succeed, there will be a change across the board.

Hands Off programme

Hands Off, an Aidsfonds programme, works directly with sex worker-led groups, police, religious leaders, service providers and NGOs to reduce violence against sex workers in Southern Africa. This story story sheds light on one of the champions of change who work to break down societal barriers to sex workers’ rights. By sharing their stories, Hands Off aims to encourage everyone to stand up for the rights of sex workers. Because human rights are for all. We would like to thank North Star Alliance in Zimbabwe for its assistance in facilitating this interview.

The programme is funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Mozambique.


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