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South Africa to Decriminalize Sex Work to Combat HIV & Crime Against Women

AMOS GUMULIRA/AFP via Getty Images
Members of the Female Sex Workers Association in Malawi participate in a march in January of 2021

The country currently has one of the highest rates of HIV diagnoses in the world.

In an effort to combat crime against women and the spread of HIV, South African officials announced plans to decriminalize sex work. With over 150,000 sex workers in the country, advocacy groups hope the decriminalization will help minimize humans rights violations against sex workers.

As South Africa struggles with one of the largest HIV caseloads in the world, they have also seen a growing wave of violence against women. A double-digit increase in murders of women grew to 1,000 women killed between July and September. 10,000 rape cases were also reported, which takes that rate up 11 percent.

Recent attacks, including the retrieval of half a dozen bodies believed to be missing sex workers in October, have shocked the nation. The post-apartheid constitution in South Africa is one of the most liberal in the world. While they have progressive laws regarding abortion and same-sex marriage, sex work has remained a hot topic.

The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), South Africa’s leading sex worker rights organization, approved of the decision. In a Facebook post, they wrote, “Where decriminalization has happened — New South Wales, New Zealand — sex workers report that it delivers better health and safety protection, and a cooperative relationship with the police. Sex workers are the most vulnerable people in the sex industry, so surely their view is the most important one?”

In a press briefing, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola said the decriminalization “would also mean better access to health care and… afford better protection for sex workers, better working conditions, and less discrimination against stigma.”

The bill, however, does not regulate the sex industry and only deals with decriminalization. Lamola noted that this was something that would follow in a later stage.

For the law to pass, the South African Parliament must first approve the proposed legislation. This procedure will take a few months, at least. 

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Andrew J. Stillman