Sex Work In Southern Africa: Criminalization Provides Screen For Other Rights Violations
Like most other countries, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa criminalize sex work. Criminalization is just the beginning of the numerous forms of rights violations that sex workers in these countries experience.
By Kathambi Kinoti
Sex work is criminalized or stigmatized- or both- in most societies. In 2008, the Open Society Institute carried out research into the sexual health and rights of sex workers in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. A summary of their report ‘Rights not Rescue’  was presented at the 2008 AWID Forum in Cape Town, South Africa. The research showed that the abuses that sex workers are exposed to are multifaceted. Interventions that are ostensibly aimed at improving their rights and health are typically insufficient often because they originate from problematic premises.
Targets for violence
Sex workers are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse by police on the streets and in brothels. They are routinely unlawfully arrested and detained. The report says that in Botswana and South Africa migrant sex workers, in particular Zimbabweans, are targeted with more severe violence from police and border guards. In addition to physical and sexual violence, male and trans sex workers are subjected to taunting and humiliation for their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Sex workers are also vulnerable to violence from clients and vigilante groups and murder rates are high. Because of the stigma and illegality of their work, most sex workers do not report violence to the authorities, and even when they do, their cases often go unresolved.
Restricted access to health care
A combination of human rights violations and the absence of safe working conditions makes sex workers especially vulnerable to HIV infection. There is a lack of easily accessible information and treatment services. In the case of migrant sex workers, xenophobia complicates the situation further. Sex workers have restricted access to other sexual and reproductive health services as well, and ‘Rights not Rescue’ reports that a high number of sex workers in Botswana have died as a consequence of unsafe abortions.
No labour rights
Because their work is not legally recognised, sex workers cannot claim labour rights from the legal system. This has a wide range of implications. Without a pay slip, a sex worker in South Africa cannot open a bank account or purchase a house. Although the right to fair, just and safe working conditions accrues to everyone, it is virtually impossible to enforce this right or to seek recourse for violations. Sex workers are therefore vulnerable to ‘withheld wages, arbitrary fines, restrictions on seeking medical assistance or assistance after violence, restrictions on mobility, confiscations of belongings including medication, and sexual harassment by management.’ 
Organizing for their rights
A dominant perception of sex workers – even among women’s rights advocates - is that sex workers are victims in need of rescue and rehabilitation. On the contrary, sex workers do organize to protect themselves and improve their working conditions and welfare. ‘Rights not Rescue’ provides several examples of sex workers’ formal and informal organizing. In South Africa, there are a number of organizations and networks that promote sex workers’ rights, such as Sisonke, the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). These organizations provide solidarity and support actions such as strategic litigation, formal protests against police brutality, and campaigns for the decriminalization of sex work and the recognition of sex workers’ labour and human rights.
Informally sex workers in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa support each other in many ways morally and financially. They share information on aggressors and support each other after attacks. In Hillbrow, a district of Johannesburg, sex workers ‘actively enforced unity on condom use for all transactions’  and ‘in one brothel over 100 sex workers agreed to unite to raise their prices’ thereby lowering ‘the number of clients they needed to make sufficient income and [reducing] the attraction of having unprotected sex due to inadequate earnings.’  Sex workers also pool resources such as condoms and money. They share childcare duties and care for colleagues who are ill.
Rights versus ‘rehabilitation’
‘Rights not rescue’ argues for a shift from interventions that are ‘rehabilitation’-oriented to those that promote the protection and enforcement of the rights of sex workers. Most work currently focuses on ‘rehabilitation’ initiatives which have not been proven to work. These kinds of initiatives generally train sex workers in skills such as cooking, candle-making, gardening, HIV counselling and computer literacy, and sometimes include Christian doctrine. Often, these projects further stigmatize sex workers. There are few projects that address law reform or advocate for safe working conditions and an end to violence and discrimination against sex workers.
The report recommends a number of actions that should be taken to protect the rights of sex workers including decriminalizing sex work, recognizing and addressing the link between HIV transmission and the abuse of sex workers’ human rights. It also advocates evidence-based and rights-based health initiatives for sex workers. ‘Rights not Rescue’ underscores the need for human and women’s rights movements to examine their own marginalisation of sex workers groups and work in solidarity with them.
1 Arnott, Jayne and Crago, Anna-Louise‘Rights not Rescue: A report on female, trans and male sex workers’ human rights in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa – Executive Summary’ Open Society Institute, 2008.
2 Note 2, p. 5
3 Ibid, p. 7.