The #SexWorkPromise: Decriminalising Sex Work in South Africa

Sex work promise Asijiki
Last updated on: 28 February 2024

In many places, sex workers are being criminalised for the work that they do. Not recognising sex work as legitimate work puts sex workers at risk of many violations. On this International Sex Workers’ Day, we are putting a spotlight on how sex work organisations in South Africa are pushing back against harmful laws in an effort to decriminalise sex work.

In this interview, we spoke with Constance Mathe, who is the National Coordinator at the Asijiki Coalition for the Decriminalisation of Sex Work. We are showcasing how Asijiki is protecting sex workers by challenging the Sexual Offences Act in South Africa. Ever since it became law in 1957, this piece of legislation blocks sex workers from access to health care, labour rights, healthy working conditions, and human rights.

Who are you & what is your organisation working on?

“My name is Constance Montha and I am the National Coordinator of Asijiki, which is the Coalition for the Decriminalisation of Sex Work. Asijiki is a collective of sex workers, activists, advocates and human rights defenders who advocate for law reform for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa.”

What is the Sexual Offences Act & what is its effect on sex workers in South Africa?

“Under the current law in South Africa, sex workers are being criminalised. In practice this means that sex workers are vulnerable, because they operate under criminalising laws. This puts them at risk, because they can’t practice their work nor can they exercise their human rights. The consequence of this criminalised environment causes a lot of gender-based violence against sex workers. We advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work, because there is an urgent need for it. We call out for the decriminalisation of sex work!”

What do you do to push for the abolishment of the Act?

“We are now focusing on the decriminalisation bill. We drafted this decriminalisation bill for over 8 years. When we drafted it, we ended up getting ignored and ignored. Therefore, we had to ignore the bill and put it aside. But this year we saw that it is important to start drafting a new bill and to also be engaging with the sex workers on the ground. This is because in the old bill that we had, we had left out the voices of the sex workers on the ground. Therefore, we did several consultations with the sex workers. And we also consulted the Department of Justice.

Beyond that, we are doing high-level lobbying, such as with Parliament, local governments and high-profile organisations. We are also trying to be involved in conferences and spaces that allow for opportunities to talk about the decriminalisation of sex work.”

When do you expect the abolishment of the Act to happen?

“We are not sure what the status with the Department of Justice is right now. The last time we had a discussion with them, they said they also need to consult traditional and religious leaders. But last week I had a meeting with them and they will first initiate several consultations before reviewing the bill. Once that is done, it will come out for public participation. Our aim is to make sure that it will be out by the end of the year.”

On this International Sex Workers’ Day: what are you doing & what is your hope for sex workers in South Africa?

“On the 2nd of June, on International Sex Workers’ Day, we’re going to do the ‘sex workers promise’, which is a campaign that we started three years ago. It is a reminder to all institutes and government sectors, that they’ve come out to say that they support the decriminalisation of sex work. So, we’re going to be reminding them of their promise. We are still criminalised now, so where is the promise? Even the President himself made a comment in 2016. So, it is a time for us to remind him and ask him: what happened to the promises? Why are you not keeping the promises that you made to us?

In the first phase of the campaign, we ask the public for comments, so that we can hear what the South Africans think about decriminalising sex work. In the second phase, we are going to have a dialogue with government officials so that we can open up the discussion. And in the last stage, we are meeting the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaposa. We will be delivering the memorandum to remind him: ‘where is the promise? What happened to the promise?’. With all that we do, we are hoping to see that sex workers are decriminalised by the end of the year. If it is possible, at least the decriminalisation bill must be published for the public to comment on by the end of the year.”

Find out more about Asijiki!