Impumelelo - The Stellenbosch Academy for Social Innovation

Hope for those on the Margins

Known as one of the oldest professions in the world, prostitution has always presented the state with enormous challenges. In this regard, the tension between state officials and feminists has always been contradictory.

The debate regarding sex work in South Africa has resurfaced yet again, and rightly so. There is an estimated 500 000 sex workers in South Africa. Women and men working in this industry face many challenges, such as: the lack of access to health care, legal recourse and social services; health risks, including increased risk of HIV/AIDS and other STIs, and substance abuse.

While not completely extinguished, the debate concerning legalisation versus criminalisation was brought to the forefront in August when the Women’s Legal Centre released a report entitled ‘A Report on Human Rights Violations by Police against Sex Workers in South Africa’.

The 25-page report is a harrowing account from 308 sex workers (72% of which are from Cape Town) who have all allegedly been victims of sexual, verbal, and physical harassment from the police. It also “highlights a gap between the rights enshrined in the South African Constitution and treatment meted out to sex workers”.

Recommendations given to state actors include: repealing laws prohibiting the buying and selling of sex so that sex workers can access health and other social services; a call for the Human Rights Commission to investigate the violence against sex workers; and putting in place mechanisms to monitor and respond to reports of police violence.

One of Impumelelo’s 2012 Social Innovation Award Winners, the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), has been lobbying for these exact recommendations since their establishment in 1996. “The human rights abuse of sex workers in SA is alarming and needs immediate attention,” Maria Stacey, the Outreach and Development Programme Manager at SWEAT, told the Independent Online.

SWEAT is one of the very few organisations in SA working with sex workers. It works in the area of development, health-care and secure welfare of persons working in the sex industry. In partnership with the Department of Health, the South African National AIDS Council, Lethabong Legal Advice Centre, the Reproductive Health Institute, the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation, to name a few, SWEAT encourages and strives for coordination and cooperation among voluntary organisations, state departments, legal and health professionals so as to bring about an interdisciplinary approach to concerns of sex workers in SA.

The head office is in Cape Town, and is referred to as the ‘Innovation Laboratory’. It’s where new projects are developed, refined and evaluated before being rolled out nationally. For example, in 2010 an Adult Education Programme was initiated to assist in skills development, so that individuals can increase their skills base and income, or transition out of sex work.

Through this type of innovative thinking their success rate over the past year is impressive. Over 1000 sex workers have been trained or have attended workshops; 5245 were reached with Behaviour Change Communication Messages; 511 sex workers received HIV tests and results; and there were over 440 outreaches conducted.

Whether you are for or against the legalisation of sex work, the difference SWEAT makes to the lives of these people are undeniable. One sex worker said, “When I come to Cape Town I met an organisation called SWEAT- Sex Workers’ Education and Advocacy Taskforce – that educated me about my rights and health issues. Now I’m strong and I’m willing to educate other sex workers that still don’t know their rights.”

Aziza Banderker

Published in The Citizen

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