As South Africa prepares to host the Fifa World Cup in June 2010, the country is reviewing policies that may help reduce public health risks over sex and alcohol consumption with the influx of tourists into the country with one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world at 18.1%. A coalition formed between the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC) and South Africa’s Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT) is working to de-criminalise sex work during the tournament, with the potential of extending legal reform beyond the tournament into a long-term national strategy.
SWEAT and SANAC’s activism is part of the public debate surrounding the issue of sex work during the World Cup and ongoing discussions of sex work in general. South Africa has been considering a change in legal policies toward sex work for the last decade.
In 1999 the question of legal reform regarding sex work was brought before the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) under a larger investigation into ‘sexual offenses’. It was delayed until 2007 as the commission focused on other aspects of the investigation. In 2009 SALRC released a briefing paper and sought public opinion on the question of legal reform. SALRC is considering four possible recommendations: continuing the complete criminalisation of sex work; partial criminalisation; non-criminalisation; and regulation of sex work.
Dellene Clark of SALRC says, “We have received over 2600 submissions. The authors of these submissions range from a large number of concerned citizens, faith based organisations (Christian, Muslim, Hindu), NGOs and interest groups such as SWEAT, Family Policy Institute, National Council on AIDS, government departments including the National Prosecuting Authority, the House of Traditional Leaders and Godly Governance Network, to name but a few.”
A briefing paper released by SALRC indicates that the majority of these responses favour a continuation of current criminalisation policies, coupled with programmes to assist sex workers to leave the profession. But the briefing emphasises that the larger debate stemming from these opinions is whether South Africa should make laws based on moral opinions.
The long-term debate about sex work has been thrown into the spotlight as South Africa prepares for the World Cup. While the legal reform will not be completed in time for the tournament, several public health organisations are pushing for a temporary decriminalisation period during the World Cup. They hope that such a period would demonstrate the anticipated positive health repercussions of decriminalisation and influence the debate over long-term legal changes.
In 2007 the then national police commissioner, Jackie Selebi, suggested that sex work and public drinking be legalised during the world cup. Police and local government officials note the tendency for increased participation in the sex industry during major tourist events. They see legalisation as a way to make sex work safer for both clients and sex workers by allowing them to operate in central, monitored locations.
SWEAT has long focused on promoting sex worker rights as human rights in South Africa. Eric Harper, Executive Director of SWEAT says, “SWEAT is working towards the realisation of an empowered sex worker sector in South Africa, which is capacitated and thus significantly better able to defend its human rights and challenge human rights abuses.” It is difficult for sex workers to defend their rights when they are at risk of imprisonment for their profession.
During periods of increased activity such as the World Cup, such issues can be exacerbated by police policies attempting to clamp down on illicit activities. At a December 2009 consultation on sex work and the tournament organised by SWEAT and SANAC, sex workers voiced their fears about the World Cup. They worried about being arrested and missing the economic opportunity by being imprisoned; increasing police raids and theft; and they were concerned about potential “clean-up” policies where they could be rounded up to improve public image.
In response to this ongoing debate, SANAC and SWEAT are pushing for a moratorium on sex work law enforcement during the World Cup. They plan to lobby the police to cease all sex work and ‘loitering’ arrests during the tournament, as well as end police harassment of sex workers.
Marlise Richter of the SANAC Women’s Sector and the Inter-sectoral Working Group on Sex Work explains the justification for these suggestions: “This will free the police up to deal with real crimes and will make sex workers safer.”
Richter also notes that visitors who contract with sex workers will be spared the risk of imprisonment.
If the policy is adopted for the world cup, Richter sees it as a potential precursor to ongoing changes in legal policies concerning sex work.
“Such a moratorium will also create an opportunity to do a type of “dry run” on the de-criminalisation of sex work to prove that the world didn’t come to an end when sex work wasn’t dealt with in terms of criminal law,” Richter says.
Along with a moratorium, SANAC and SWEAT are planning on widespread awareness campaigns promoting safe sex and HIV prevention. Coasters with HIV prevention information will be placed in bars where people congregate to watch the games; condoms and lubricant decorated with soccer logos will be distributed as broadly as possible. The world cup has the potential to create a public health disaster. But it is also a timely opportunity to explore public health policy shifts.
A MediaGlobal Article