The sensitisation workshop was given to all stakeholders who work with sex workers in order to enlighten them on the work Hlokomela is doing, and ultimately try and change stakeholder behaviour and discrimination towards people working as sex workers.
Workshop attendees included SAPS, social workers from local clinics, social services of the municipality and various other health workers.
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Hlokomela currently have 13 peer educators working with sex workers in the local area; three work in Phalaborwa, three in Maruleng, three in Tzaneen, two in Giyani and two in the Greater Letaba area. A further 13 peer educators work in the Bushbuckridge area.
The project is now in its third year and and aims to educate sex workers on health risks, condom usage, as well as HIV-testing services (HTS). Counselling and support is offered to those who test positive, and advice on treatment given.
The workshop was aimed at changing the behaviour towards sex workers from all concerned stakeholders, to be more tactful and understanding as well as to advocate for the decriminalisation of sex workers.
It is said that sex workers are often discriminated against when they require help. Government organisations are often failing these women and men, when they try to act responsibly within their chosen field of work.
Sex workers experience a high occurrence of rape from police officials and should a sex worker be raped by a client, the justice system often fails them due to the nature of their work. Furthermore, when a sex worker seeks help from a healthcare professional for family planning, pap smears, condoms or tests, they are often denied access to such resources due to judgements laid upon them. Further discrimination often comes from the community.
By denying sex workers access to basic healthcare, we are exacerbating the health issues that come along with sex work.
The workshop was therefore aimed at desensitising the taboo subject of sex work in order for stakeholders who work with these men and women on a daily basis to be more tactful and prevent stigmatisation.
During the workshop, attendees were asked to write down some details of someone that they know who is a sex worker including their gender, age, level of education and family situation. The majority of sex workers described were female, between 20 to 40 years old and generally with a lower level of education. Of all the sex workers described, every single one was from a child-headed household.
Although there are presently an estimated 130 000 to 180 000 sex workers in South Africa from very diverse backgrounds, the majority are younger women with low levels of education who need to financially support a family. These women therefore are subjected to very few employment opportunities and so the predominate reason for women entering into the trade is economic. National statistics show that on average, every sex worker supports four other people financially.
Moreover, in this country, many women are exposed to sexual activity against their will from a young age. This may well desensitise them to the intimacy and exclusivity of sexual relationships going forward in their lives.
It is important to differentiate between prostitution and trafficking. SWEAT Training Coordinator Clinton Osbourn says: “A sex worker is an adult who has made the decision for him/herself and entered into sex work by choice. It is very different from being a victim of trafficking, where a person is doing it against his or her will.”
The law in South Africa regarding prostitution reads as follows: “Any person who has unlawful carnal intercourse or commits an act of indecency with any other person for reward, is guilty of an offence, effectively criminalising the client as well as the prostitute.”
In today’s modern society, the line is not particularly clear. Who exactly is a sex worker?
Many of the women attending the workshop argued that a huge number of us could fall under the category, as the law states, without even knowing it. Have you ever accepted a dinner invite from someone, expected them to pay for the meal and then entered into a sexual act together? Was the result of sexual intercourse pre-conceived before the ‘date’ took place? Then, as the law states, this is sex working.
The law does not state that the reward must be financial. It may be a new handbag, a nice meal out or a new car.
We live in a world where choosing a partner is as simple as swiping right. Tinder, a dating app, readily describes itself as a ‘hookup app’.
Should two people like the look of one another on the app, they will meet and often ‘hookup’. If the end result was pre-planned, and say for example, the man offered to pay for the woman’s drinks all night prior to this, is this not in fact, as per the law, sex work?
A few women at the workshop say they have entered into a consensual sexual act with somebody, expecting to have their taxi money paid for afterwards. The lines certainly seem to be blurred in modern day society.
Yet only men and women that actively label themselves as sex workers are being judged, being denied services, being assaulted, insulted and discriminated against.
SWEAT advocates for the decriminalisation of sex work, and the subject is gaining a lot of political support.
At a recent parliamentary hearing, 60% voted in support of decriminalisation, 20% voted for prostitution to remain criminalised and 20% voted for the ‘Nordic model’.
The Nordic model is that which is currently in place in Sweden. The laws on prostitution in Sweden make it illegal to buy sex, but not to sell the use of one’s own body for such services.
The enforcement of the anti-prostitution laws varies by country but is legal in countries such as New Zealand, Bangladesh, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece and France to name but a few.
Many countries around the world are trying to remove the stigma, violence and fear associated with prostitution by legalising it. Although possibly backward in thinking, legalisation can allow a country to have more control.
Look at drinking ages. The legal drinking age in France is 16 years for wine and beer, and 18 years for spirits and liquor. Moreover, drinking wine by young teens is tolerated if they’re with their parents. The culture around alcohol in France is generally one of responsibility, and legislative measures have been put forward in order to combat alcoholism among the young.
In contrast, with just a skip across the Channel in England, where the legal drinking age is 18, there is an enormous binge drinking culture. It is every red-cheeked, English, 15-year-old’s desire to defy the system, ‘Damn the man’ and get absolutely inebriated on cheap vodka.
The tighter the shackles are pulled, the more we will endeavour to wriggle out of them it seems.