Report launch: “Decrim of sex work is about human rights”

woman clapping her hands
Last updated on: 05 March 2024

“We marched [in Mozambique last month] because 14 sex workers were murdered. Who were the perpetrators, we do not know. We are working with the police to investigate this. What called attention to these murders is that nothing was taken from the sex workers… they were just assassinated”, Julia Vilanculos, Coordinator for the National Platform for Sex Workers’ Rights in Mozambique, said on 9 December at the official launch of a 2022 report on human rights violations against sex workers in Southern Africa.

A decades-long fight

Nkere Skosana (Department of Social Development) Megan Lessing (SWEAT), Kholi Buthelezi (Sisonke), Nthapeleleng Seleka (Department of Justice) and Jabu Sibeko (South Africa National AIDS Council) (Left to right)

The report – called Equal Rights, Human Rights – was compiled by the regional sex work community and the event was held in recognition of the International Human Rights Day the following day. The event was made even more timeous by the publishing of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill of 2022 for public comment by the South African government: a critical development in the decades-long fight for the decriminalisation of sex work.

To kick off the event, the report was officially handed over to relevant South African policymakers -namely, Nkere Skosana (Department of Social Development), Nthapeleleng Seleka (Department of Justice), and Jabu Sibeko (South Africa National AIDS Council).

Data collection

Julia Vilanculos

Vilanculos said that data was collected in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique around violations like the brutal murders mentioned above “because we want to grow evidence to be able to present [to platforms] like the Parliament”. Coordinated by non-profit organisation Aidsfonds, the Hands Off programme partnered with 21 data collectors from organisations Bonela, North Star Alliance, Pathfinder, Sisonke Botswana, Sisonke South Africa, Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT) and the Zimbabwe Sex Workers Alliance to collect the data for the report.

Sex workers are at great risk of human rights violations and face deep-rooted inequity, discrimination, and brutal violence at the hands of authorities and wider society. Each year, through the Hands Off programme sex workers join forces to document and publish the violations they experience with the goal of reclaiming their rights and informing policy.

Deep support

Friday’s programme included speeches by guest speakers, music and moving performances by the Sex Workers Theatre Group of SWEAT.

“They forced me into a suit, but I was stronger than that. They took my children away, but I was stronger than that. They beat me to a pulp, but I was stronger than that”, the theatre performers said, making tangible the brutal physical and emotional violence as well as social exclusion sex workers frequently experience.

The event also demonstrated the close relationships and deep support sex workers and activists find in the sex work community.

Each speaker was joined by audience members dancing in the aisle and in front of the stage as they approached the microphone. “Sisonke isesenendawo la”, they sang loudly in Zulu. Translated, the lyrics mean, ‘Sisonke, the organisation will always have a place in my heart’, one audience member explained.

Theatre performance by Sex Workers Theatre Group of SWEAT

Witnessing history being made

The palpable excitement at the event was not only as a result of activists across organisations reuniting, but also because of the publishing for comment of the bill mentioned above.

“We are witnessing history being made”, Kholi Buthelezi, founding member and national coordinator of Sisonke, told this writer.

The bill “repeals Section 11 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offenses and Related Matters) Amendment Act, 2007 (Act 32 of 2007) to decriminalise the sale and purchase of adult sexual services” ” the Presidency said in a statement, and “… will amongst others protect sex workers against abuse and exploitation”. South Africa is the first African country to publish a bill for decriminalisation of sex work.

Kholi Buthelezi

Buthelezi said the bill was important because “it’s a constitution for the sex worker industry, what we want in the industry, how sex workers should be treated, how the industry should look like”.

“It has been hard getting this bill passed, we’ve been calling for it for around 25 years. I think of our fellow sisters who have passed on working to get this passed, and now it has. Every one of them was waiting for this moment. People think that decriminalisation is about sex workers recruiting people… but let us be clear, [the fight for] decriminalisation is about human rights”.