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South Africa: Push to Protect Sex Workers During World Cup

A steering committee has been set up with a mandate to push for reforms with the police commissioner and legislature before the world soccer showcase in June 2010. Sex workers and activist organizations say the World Cup is an opportunity to decriminalize their trade.
"I have seen my colleagues harassed by the police and I have also experienced that," said Anna Sibisi, a sex worker for the past eight years in Cape Town. "I would like to see this end before the World Cup."

Well aware of the resistance to changing the law, sex workers are pushing for at least a moratorium on arrests during the soccer event. "We should be given temporary licenses to operate during the World Cup as they map the long term plans," Sibisi said. She sees the World Cup as a chance to work uninterrupted and "make lots of money."

In South Africa, sex workers face a jail term if charged for at least three times. Fines of up to 200 dollars are paid on initial arrests. "The police have to stop harassing sex workers, doing so will increase their vulnerability, that is why we will engage with police authorities before the World Cup," said Dianne Massawe of the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT).

SWEAT is a non governmental organization that advocates for the rights of sex workers. The Cape Town based organization has also been on the forefront of calling for the decriminalization of sex in South Africa. "We have realized that people still enter into sex work, therefore we say it is better to educate (them) and have their rights protected - it's a matter of human rights," added Massawe. The idea is that decriminalization will end the abuse of sex workers by police; harassment and arrests - though almost never any charges - force people like Sibisi to operate in risky locations.

South Africa's HIV and AIDS and STI Strategic Plan (2007-2011) recommended that sex work be decriminalized. For Health researcher Marlise Richter with the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC), the merits of such a move are many; chief among them reproductive health for sex workers. She said: "If it is legal the sex worker will dictate the terms knowing that the law is on her side, she or he can negotiate with a client for safe sex which is rarely happening now."

Health activist Tim Bannet of the World AIDS Campaign shares Richter's view. Bannet says HIV transmission will be significantly reduced if sex work is decriminalized. South Africa expects at least 450,000 visitors during the World Cup, and according to Bannet-sexual activity will increase. The prospect is chilling for a country that has the world's highest HIV and AIDS rate. UNAIDS says South Africa accounts for 17 percent of global infections.
"Sex workers will be empowered and clients will know this - so there will be less abuse and fear," said Bannet.

Bannet referred to the New Zealand experience after laws were changed in 2003. Studies conducted by the government five years later showed positive changes, which Bannet said were due to 'improved working conditions and sex workers being able to negotiate safer sex and report abuse to police.' But the suggestion of decriminalization has again sparked furious public debate in South Africa, a reflection of how sex work is still highly stigmatized in African countries.

The process of changing the law began some seven years ago when the South African Law Reform Commission was tasked with reviewing the Sexual Offences Act. However, the process has dragged and the initial bill is expected for parliamentary debate in March next year and final legislation in 2011. "The delay has not been encouraging and this has had profound effects on sex work operations in this country," said Massawe. "We anticipate a day when our leaders will realise that this phenomenon will remain part of our society."

The South African government and the FIFA local organizing committee have also been urged to prioritize safe sex campaigns during the tournament. Germany's hosting of the World Cup in 2006 is cited as a good example. Caroline Keuppers of the University of Munich said condom distribution was increased by 400,000 and safe sex was promoted more than a year before kick off. The German success story and the reality of the enormous work ahead worries the South African National AIDS Council and other stakeholders who are not yet visible as the tournament fast approaches.

"We are talking to FIFA on all these issues of public health and I think it will also be an opportunity to introduce the human rights aspect-that is of sex workers," concluded Zanele Mthembu of SANAC Sports and Entertainment Sector.
AllAfrica.com

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