Multi-Party Women's Caucus: Sex work presentation by SWEAT

Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities

19 September 2012
Chairperson: Ms B Dlulane (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Multi-Party Women's Caucus in Parliament heard SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce) was involved in human a rights defence project, where it partnered with a legal advocacy organisation in the provinces. The project empowered sex workers to defend their own rights. The legal organisation train for a period of time four sex workers as paralegals. Those trained would specifically focus on human rights cases forwarded by sex workers. SWEAT advocated for the decriminalisation of the industry, and mobilised sex workers.

Criminalising sex work enabled widespread abuses, especially by the police. It also exacerbated the stigma associated with sex work, but also prevented access to fundamental rights. SWEAT had started with sensitisation workshops with the police, and the Deputy Minister of Police, Ms Maggie Sotyu, was instrumental in this.

SWEAT was also in partnership with TB/HIV Care where nurses were taught to care about the welfare of sex workers and were, in fact, educating them on health care rights. Confiscating condoms from sex workers would fuel HIV. Raids and fines were ineffective tools.

Members sympathised with sex workers and suggested they engage the broader community. Members also wanted to know if male sex workers encountered the same challenges as women. Members said there was a need for the review of legislation, and possibly well-crafted programmes for when sex workers exited their profession. A workshop to engage all of society was proposed.

Meeting report

Opening remarks
The Chairperson said she had engaged the steering committee of the Multi-Party Women's Caucus (MPWC) to ensure that women's caucuses were happening in provinces. This was the last week before Members went to their constituencies for monitoring purposes. Members needed to inform provinces that there would be a programme and it would be presented soon after the recess. Also the Multi-Party Women's Caucus (MPWC) had resolved that it needed a briefing on the Traditional Courts Bill. According to the information at hand, some resolutions had already been taken on the Bill. The Caucus should engage with the Traditional Courts Bill, and would ask the Chairpersons of the relevant NCOP and NA Committees to brief MPWC. Members need not rest during the recess as the challenges were immeasurable.

She said the meeting was a follow-up on an invitation made to the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and Sisonke by the steering committee. MPWC had intended to hear the two organisations before but there had not been time to accommodate them.

SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce) & Sisonke presentation
Ms Ntokozo Yengwana, Advocacy Officer: SWEAT, said the organisation was founded 16 years ago, mainly to provide condoms to sex workers. It soon became apparent that many hostilities such as police arrests and abuses by gangsters, confronted sex workers. It was decided that the organisation not only focus on condom distribution, but on other advocacy programmes.

She described Sisonke as a national movement of sex workers. It was founded in 2003 and was currently present in seven provinces. The organisation was being hosted by other non-government organisations (NGOs), as it did not have its own offices.

The services that SWEAT offered included screening and testing for Sexually Transmitted Illnesses (STIs) and HIV/Aids; and condom provision. The organisation also had a 24-hour toll-free line for those sex workers who might find themselves in undesirable circumstances, or might need information. The organisation was involved in a human rights defence project, where it partnered with a legal work organisation in provinces.

The human right defence projects empowered sex workers to defend their own rights. The legal organisation would train, for a period of time, four sex workers as paralegals. Those trained would specifically focus on cases forwarded by sex workers.

SWEAT defended the rights of sex workers by monitoring human rights abuses in the industry. To this end, it partnered with legal advocacy NGOs to take up strategic litigation, and helped sex workers access the courts. The organisation advocated for the decriminalisation of the industry, and mobilised sex workers. This was the reason the delegation was accompanied by sex workers, in order to convince MPs about the dangers they faced. Sex work needed to be decriminalised in order for their rights to be honoured.

Ms Yengwana said sex work, by virtue of being a criminalised activity, rendered all those involved - the client, the sex worker and every one who lived off earnings from sex work - criminals. This by extension included children of sex workers.

The law that governed the industry was the Sexual Offences Act of 1957; the Act was amended in 2007 to include criminality on the part of the client. Since then, 11 clients had been prosecuted for engaging in services offered by sex workers.

She said criminalising sex work enabled widespread abuses, especially by the police. It exacerbated the stigma associated with sex work, but also prevented access to fundamental rights. SWEAT had started with sensitisation workshops with the police, and the Deputy Minister of Police, Ms Maggie Sotyu, had been instrumental in this. The Deputy Minister had visited SWEAT to experience firsthand the kind of abuses that sex workers experienced at the hands of police. But now officers were being trained on how better to handle sex workers.

She said the Sexual Offences Act was unenforceable, hence the low number of prosecutions since 2007. Police found it hard to charge a person for sex work, and had resorted instead to confiscating condoms from any one wearing a miniskirt at night, and used that as evidence. A conclusion was drawn that one was a sex worker if carrying condoms. This created problems for SWEAT as it distributed condoms among sex workers.

Another challenge was that police refused to hear assault cases that were reported by sex workers. A survey in 2009, indicated 12% of sex workers reported having been raped by police; 46% were threatened, and 28% were forced by police into providing sexual favours for them.
All that undermines the authority of the police and fuels corruption. She noted a case that had managed to go to court involving a policeman who had raped a sex worker at Gugulethu Police Station.

A considerable number of street and brothel based sex workers reported experiencing violence often, and being unable to report this to the police. It was difficult to report abuse incidents at a police station where the police officers involved worked. The tendency had been for police to cover for each other, and the attitude was that sexual assault on sex workers was not a problem.

Abuse was experienced at health care facilities as well, where nurses tended to be abusive and refused to treat sex workers for STIs. The tendency was to make it known once a sex worker had come in; also the nurses would be shouting one's HIV status. This was confidential information and as a result fewer sex workers made use of public clinics.

SWEAT was in partnership with TB/HIV Care where nurses were taught to care about the welfare of sex workers and were, in fact, educating them on health care rights. Confiscating condoms from sex workers would fuel HIV. The organisation called on officers to make sense of women's dress and demeanour and not draw inferences based on dressing styles.

She said the 60 police officers attending the sensitisation workshop in Bellville indicated they identified sex workers on the basis of how they dressed, and if they carried condoms late at night. Officers were not really sure on how to deal with the law that they had to enforce. She described raids and fines as ineffective tools, and said police used weak by-laws as loitering or public drinking when charging sex workers because the Sexual Offences Act required a high level of proof. The tendency was to pocket the fines received from clients and it was a common practice for officers to ask for bribes instead of effecting arrests. A criminal record reduced chances for sex workers to find employment when exiting the industry.

Ms Yengwana said it had been a challenge to get an appointment with Members of Parliament, and very few responded to correspondence sent through to them. SWEAT would love to present evidence to Members and help them understand the real lives of sex workers. In line with Sisonke's slogan - nothing about us, without us - SWEAT wanted MPs to engage sex workers directly. The tendency in society was to look at women and decide what they wanted.

SWEAT would like Members to move the discussion forward, especially since the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) had been reviewing the law for 11 years now. Nothing had been coming to the fore, and enquiries were made about the process. The Sexual Offences Act was unenforceable and perpetuated human rights abuses. This was a piece of legislation that could not be used any further. Sex workers could not enjoy access to justice and this was what SWEAT campaigned for.

The Chairperson cautioned the delegation that it need not be offended by any question MPs raised as it was in quest for knowledge, and not to judge. The MPWC was made up of people who believed in different things and such could influence the line of questioning. There were traditional healers, Christians and a host of other people, whom the delegation needed to regard as people who knew nothing about sex work. She said young girls in her constituency did scary things such as lifting up their miniskirts, with no underwear on, for men to see. Members needed to know if this was acceptable?

The Chairperson said the presenter had failed to talk to the conduct of sex workers especially during the night. Members needed to be certain about the role of the organisations, and any question was relevant. While SWEAT stated it needed the support of Parliament, it also needed to correct indecency in the industry.

Ms P Tshwete (ANC) congratulated SWEAT for appearing before the MPWC. This was a forum to fight any form of abuse and SWEAT need not fear the caucus. She was aware that the Deputy Minister of Police had met with SWEAT. This was indicative of the commitment of government to ensure the rights of every citizen in the country was in line with the Constitution.

Ms Tshwete commented that when the Portfolio Committee on Social Development had visited Durban, it had heard some sad stories of how sex workers got into the industry. She was happy that there was commitment to train the police on how to handle sex workers. Education needed to be broader to include health workers and all of society. She failed to comprehend why nurses got angry about issuing condoms, as they were meant for all institutions that dealt with sex.

Ms Tshwete said MPs needed to monitor and ensure that the laws did not suppress certain sections of the population. Members would have to come up with a programme to assist and supplement the efforts of SWEAT.

Ms C Pilane-Majake (ANC) acknowledged that the organisations had been lobbying for so many years and were aware of their constitutional rights. There was a need to protect sex workers from any form of abuse whether by police or any form of law. She said the Sexual Offences Act was oppressive, but things had changed a bit since the inception of the 2007 amendments because the buyer was also criminally liable.

Ms Pilane-Majake said there was a need also to lobby men if the organisations hoped to address that which held up the process of decriminalising sex work. There was a need for MPWC to engage Deputy Minister Sotyu, to find out where the process was following the engagement with SWEAT. The Caucus was concerned, from the perspective of ensuring that their rights as women were protected. She said decriminalisation was the way to go.

Ms W Ngwenya (ANC) said there was no law that legalised sex work and Members needed to enter into a detailed discussion so that the matter was not concluded on an uninformed basis. She asked if there were programmes to empower sex workers when they exited their profession. The career was only for a short term, and the women needed to sustain themselves beyond sex work.

Ms Ngwenya sought clarity on why services were offered only in seven provinces. Sex work was happening nationally. Was SWEAT intending to expand to the remaining provinces?

Ms Ngwenya queried the statement that only five percent of sex workers made use of SWEAT services. What about the 95%? This put the lives of the sex workers and the buyers in danger. There was a need to guarantee the protection of the health and lives of normal citizens.

Ms M Phaliso (ANC) said the Constitution made provision for the protection of human rights including sex workers. She asked how SWEAT dealt with underage girls involved in sex work, due to their family's economic circumstances. These things needed to be clarified so that when legislation was changed there was information. She suggested SWEAT make appearance in front of the Portfolio Committees on Police, Public Works and Social Development.

Ms Phaliso said Members needed to be empowered with information that they could take to their constituencies. There was no point in being denialist about sex work; it was happening and the MPWC would love to help.

Ms P Mochumi (ANC) asked if age limit was a consideration in sex work for both entry and exit, as there were children as young as primary school-going age, involved. She wondered if there were any positives in the industry as the presentation dwelled only on challenges.

Ms Mochumi asked if there were men who were sex workers, and if so, what were the kind of challenges they faced. What was their feeling about the industry being decriminalised?

Ms Mochumi asked the delegation to comment on the membership of the organisation, and if it was auditable.

Ms F Mathibela (ANC) requested that the question on SWEAT’s involvement in only seven provinces be answered. Were sex workers currently still forced to go into sex work or was it out of their own volition. Also could the delegation come out clearly as to what it wanted from Members?

Another Member wanted to know about the validity and credibility of the statistics that SWEAT had, especially that the police were involved. She would pass the statistical information to those Members of her party who sat in the Portfolio Committee on Police. She enquired if sex workers would agree to opt out of the industry if placed in a viable programme. Was this something sex workers would consider? In a democracy, people could make choices, and one got what he or she chose.

Ms P Mncube (ANC) wanted to know if there was an agreement on age as there were children as young as nine in Gauteng and in the Free State, already in the industry. She said these children would enter the industry on account of their mothers being old and not desirable to clients.

Ms Mncube sought clarity on whether there was a code of conduct that, for example, determined the dress code. In the end it was harassment of the community and potential buyers, by those who lifted skirts with no underwear.

Ms Mncube asked about the process of lobbying the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). In 2009 there was an issue with the Police and Prisoner's Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) an affiliate to Cosatu, who basically agreed that police tended to opt for favours instead of arresting sex workers. At what stage was this engagement, and had the organisation sent a lobby team to the on-going Cosatu conference.

Ms Mncube asked SWEAT to comment on whether regulation would help in terms of HIV/Aids and the stigma associated with sex work.

Ms R Morutoa (ANC) commented that decriminalising sex work had been on the agenda since the Eighties and that SWEAT had appeared in Parliament thrice. It was upsetting that some institutions were not kind about the progress made around sex work. Whether sex work was decriminalised or not – that decision rested with MPs; they were the ones tasked with the responsibility of educating. The Department of Social Development was confronted with the challenge of child headed households, and in most instances these were children who had no choice but to sell sex in order to generate income.

Ms Morutoa proposed that a national workshop be conducted in getting everyone to understand sex work. But also there was a need for a state led fund, for those who wanted to exit. The workshop could be tasked with dotting the i's and crossing the t's around how such a fund would function.

Ms L Dunjwa (ANC) said consultation and lobbying around sex work needed to be broad as it affected a lot of women even in business and in church. Conservatism among Africans needed to be dealt with and confronted.

The Chairperson suggested that all party caucuses in Parliament needed to discuss sex work at their Thursday party caucus. She would ask the ANC caucus to hear SWEAT out.

Mr Nomad Gallant, SWEAT Facilitator, replied there were lots of male sex workers who unfortunately had not bought into the idea of coming out as women did. A lot of them worked in clubs, and were not at the point where they were felt liberal enough to expose themselves.

He said there were registers and a database of sex workers. On Tuesdays there were meetings of male sex workers in Cape Town and there were about 120 registered. The organisations had an idea of how many sex workers there were.

The Chairperson interjected and said Members were pressed for time as Parliament was sitting in the afternoon. She requested that the questions be replied to in writing.

The meeting was adjourned.


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