Sex Workers Have Human Rights Too

Guest Contributor - 30th August 2012

By Stacey-Leigh Manoek and Gcobisa Silwana

South African law criminalises sex work. In terms of the law both the sex worker and the client commit offences, yet it is sex workers who bear the consequences of this criminal status.

This is one of many cases where sex workers experience human rights violations at the hands of the police as a result of the criminalisation of their work. 7 in 10 sex workers who have approach the Women’s Legal Centre have experienced some kind of physical or sexual assault by the police. They often report being pepper sprayed during arrest, assaulted at the police station and sometimes stripped naked in public when being searched.On the afternoon of the 28th July 2012, a 26 year old female sex worker was working on the streets of Parrow (outside Cape Town in South Africa) when a police officer finally stopped to get her attention, after passing by four times in an unmarked police vehicle. The police officer instructed the sex worker to get into the car and threatened to arrest her if she did not have sex with him. When she pointed out that she shouldn’t be arrested since she wasn’t caught committing a criminal offence, the police officer demanded oral sex in exchange for release. The police officer also stole R 170.00 from the sex worker’s purse before he told her to get out of the car. The sex worker reported the matter and a criminal case of rape was then opened. At the first court appearance the police officer received bail of R1000, and the sex worker is currently waiting on the Independent Police Investigative Directorate to conduct an ID parade.

Police officers commit these crimes with impunity. They remove their name tags so that sex workers are unable to identify them, and they instil fear in the sex workers so that these crimes are not reported to the authorities. The existing legal framework encourages police corruption due to the option of bribes and demands of sex.

A report which finds that police officers in South Africa are the main violators of sex workers’ human rights was released yesterday at the National Sex Work Symposium in Johannesburg.  The full report is available at:

In order to address these human rights violations, South Africa should decriminalise the selling and buying of sex because the current legal framework leaves sex workers vulnerable to police violence, harassment and abuse, and does not provide them with the protection that they require.  It is apparent that the current legal system must be reformed to bring the treatment of sex workers in line with our constitutional obligations and reduce police abuse of sex workers. South Africa must shift from approaching sex work through the lens of criminalisation and instead treat sex work as a form of labour that is governed with the same rights and responsibilities as all other forms of work.

Stacey-Leigh Manoek is an Attorney and Gcobisa Silwana the Communications and Media Officer at the Women’s Legal Centre in Cape Town, South Africa, a not-for-profit law centre committed to advancing equality for women.  See:

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