By Uzair Adams

The sex work sensitisation training seminars took place in collaboration between ProBono.Org and the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), South Africa’s leading sex worker human rights organisation, providing services to sex workers since 1996. The organisation exclusively works with adult sex workers on issues of health and human rights. Its services include providing safer sex education, crisis counselling, legal advice and skills development for sex workers. SWEAT advocates for the protection, promotion and fulfilment of sex workers’ human rights through human rights defence and advocating for law reform for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa. In June 2017, SWEAT decided to register and open a law clinic in response to the outcry from sex workers for legal assistance in issues specific to them as a direct result of their profession.

These training seminars were therefore part of a series of workshops that were rolled out in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, with the aim of sensitising legal practitioners about sex work and the experiences of sex workers in order to broaden their perspectives and to encourage them to avail themselves when their skills and expertise are needed by this vulnerable group; as well as to assist people to understand why SWEAT is calling for the full decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa.

The Johannesburg training seminars took place at Bowman Gilfillan’s offices on the 9th and 10th of September; the Durban training seminar took place at Norton Rose Fulbright SA’s offices on the 18th September, and the Cape Town training seminar took place at Norton Rose Fulbright SA’s offices on the 8th October 2019.

The training workshops covered the following subjects:

  • Language of sex, gender, sexual orientation and sexual practice
  • The effects of stigma, prejudice and discrimination
  • Transactional sex
  • The legal framework and the four legal models for sex work: criminalisation, partial criminalisation, legalisation and decriminalisation
  • How to support sex workers’ rights
  • Values and attitudes to sex work
  • Profile of a sex worker
  • Reasons people enter sex work
  • Places where sex workers find clients
  • Other people that impact a sex worker’s life
  • Risks faced by sex workers and appropriate responses

Currently, criminalisation of sex work has been in place since 1957, with clients being specifically criminalised since 2007. This has resulted in high levels of violence, a lack of access to basic services including healthcare services and abuse of sex workers, including by police officers.

The decriminalisation of sex work would allow sex workers to function within a human rights framework, as it would entail the following:

  • the removal of criminal charges against sex workers;
  • the operation of brothels and individual sex workers as ordinary businesses;
  • the ability to implement laws protecting sex workers from special risks;
  • minimising discrimination and stigma around sex work, which will in turn enable sex workers to access basic services more easily; and
  • the potential reduction of abuse, together with increased reporting to
    the police.

The training seminars therefore provided a platform for interesting and robust dialogue around these issues. Participants raised many important questions, including the issue of consent and how consent is not always easy to define when a person’s circumstances limit their choices. Most of the participants seemed to fully understand the need for decriminalisation and were in support of it. They understood how it can create an environment where it is easier to protect the rights of sex workers as well as to ensure their safety.


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