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Sex Work Decriminalization in South Africa

January 25, 2023

Last month, South Africa announced that it intended to decriminalize sex work through publishing a draft bill, which is currently open for public comment. As a draft bill, decriminalization is not yet the law, but this marks an exciting step forward for an estimated 150,000 South Africa-based sex workers and their allies.

We must celebrate and acknowledge those who worked tirelessly, over many decades, to bring this victory to fruition. South African sex workers and sex work advocacy groups have long urged the government to decriminalize sex work to protect fundamental human rights to privacy and bodily autonomy, to promote safety for sex workers, and to ultimately reduce violence against sex workers.

Criminalizing sex work, Skye Wheeler notes, makes sex workers extremely vulnerable to work in dangerous conditions to avoid arrest, making it more likely they will become victims of sexual violence. The stigma of criminalization makes their lives outside of work more complicated: research has linked criminalization of sex work to “discrimination or sometimes poor treatment by healthcare provider.” Not to mention that in a broader sense, criminalization “corrodes respect from others” and ultimately dehumanizes sex workers.

Thanks to the dedication of organizations like Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (“SWEAT”), Sisonke, and the Asijiki coalition, sex workers have a hopeful future in South Africa, one where, should the bill become law, they will not face the dangers of criminalization based on their labor.

We at the Woodhull Freedom Foundation applaud the sex workers, advocacy groups, and allies who have made this hopeful future possible. We join the Human Rights Watch in urging South African authorities to ensure that the draft bill leads to South Africa fully decriminalizing sex work. As Skye Wheeler writes: “Ending abusive laws and practices against these workers who are especially vulnerable to gender-based violence is long overdue.” The time for sex work decriminalization is now.

Sex Workers

Photo of a person protesting.

A person holds a sign reading "sex work is work!" (Erik McGregor/Pacific Press)

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