16 Days of Activism: sex workers tell of harassment by cops
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Pretoria - Sex workers operating in different areas around Limpopo had a rare opportunity to interact and express grievances at a dialogue with Deputy Minister of Social Development Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu on issues affecting their work on a daily basis.
The dialogue was held in Polokwane as part of the annual 16 Days of No Violence against Women and Children campaign currently in full swing under the theme, “The Year of Mannya Maxeke – 16 Day of Activism – Moving from Awareness to Accountability”.
Conny Buthelezi, representing the Sisonke National Sex Worker Movement in South Africa, said sex workers are confronted with abuse, violence and other forms of exploitation which are economic in nature and gender-based violence.
“As of 1957, sex work was criminalised in terms of the Sexual Offences Act of 1957. Clients (sex workers) have to pay lots of money in the form of bribery to appease those who arrest them and even social workers,” said Buthelezi.
She said police officers tend to target sex workers even when they are not soliciting customers.
"Law-enforcement officers often demand money from sex workers and some of their rights are violated as they are arrested even when they go shopping and not necessarily conducting their sex work business," said Buthelezi.
One sex worker based in Limpopo, who chose to remain anonymous, said she was a breadwinner, and appealed to the government to protect people in her sector from abuse.
Another sex worker told the gathering of how she was raped and her case was reported to the SAPS. She said police officers told her to find the perpetrator who had molested her.
Another sex worker, only identified as Ms Malema, told the audience that she was HIV-positive and on antiretroviral treatment, but she was once detained and denied her life-saving medication.
“I was once arrested by police officers and was detained without access to ARVs. When I requested to be given ARVs, they promised to organise for me, but I ended up surviving for three days without ARVs,” she said.
Reacting to the grievances of the sex workers, Deputy Minister Bogopane-Zulu said sex workers' rights must be respected by all South Africans, especially by members of the SAPS.
She highlighted that all workers have a right to health care, protection and recognition of their profession.
Bogopane-Zulu said she appreciated the voices of the sex workers amplified at the gathering, and vowed to continue advocating for their protection.
The Department of Social Development said sex workers in South Africa are a vulnerable group as defined in Goal 3 of the National Strategic Plan for HIV, TB and STIs. The goal stipulates that, in order for the country to succeed in its quest to end HIV as a public health threat, all key and vulnerable populations such as sex workers need targeted interventions designed for challenges unique to them.
The National Sex Worker HIV Plan also calls for similar interventions geared towards addressing structural drivers of HIV within the sex worker context.
The Department of Social Development called for the decriminalisation of sex work, stating that criminalisation poses a myriad of challenges against interventions designed for sex workers.
"Sex workers continue to be the subject of human rights violations, gender-based violence, ill-treatment by law-enforcement officials and the public as well as severe cases of stigmatisation. These challenges were heightened by the outbreak of the coronavirus," the department added.